The Garden of Shmita: Parashat B'har

Delivered at Nehar Shalom in 2014

 

Sing: "Now Is The Cool of the Day" written by Kentucky singer and folk songwriter Jean Ritchie in the early 1970s.

My Lord she said unto me

Do you like my garden so fair

You may live in this garden if you keep the grasses green

And I'll return in the cool of the day.

Now is the cool of the day

Now is the cool of the day

The earth is a garden, a garden of my Lord

And She walks in Her garden

In the cool of the day.

 

This year at Nehar Shalom, we have been studying Shmita, the Biblical Sabbatical year. Every other week, a group of members have gathered in the shtibl to look at texts about this practice, to explore what it meant in its original context and what it could mean to us today.  I'm grateful to everyone who has come and participated in this year of study.

According to Biblical Shmita practice, every 7th year is the Shmita, which comes from the root ש.מ.ט, literally meaning release. All debts are forgiven and we are told to cease from all normal agricultural activity.  No plowing, sowing, or normal harvesting is to occur.  We get our fruits, veggies and grain by gathering only what we need at a time.  The gates of fields are flung open, and for a year, all people may partake equally of the fruits of the land.  The economy is radically equalized.

Excitingly, we have not lost track of counting Shmita years, and the next one starts this Rosh Hashanah. We here at Nehar Shalom are part of a growing movement to re-imagine what the Shmita year might meaningfully look like in our culture and time. This parasha, Parshat Behar, is one of the three places in Torah where the laws of Shmita are explained, and in the weeks surrounding this parasha there are events going on all over the country to learn, explore, and celebrate. Our skillshare next Sunday May 18th is one of many of these events!  If you haven't yet, check it out on the website or ask me about it after services. I am thrilled that we are part of a broader community of people who are asking these kinds of questions – What could it look like here and now to have an economy based more on sharing? What could it look like here and now to forgive debt?  What could it look like to live with acknowledgement that we are stewards of the land, not owners? How could agriculture change? How could culture change? 

There is so much Torah I'd like to lift up here and share from a wonderful year of learning.  But I will focus on just one of my favorite gleanings from our studies.

Parashat Behar begins – Read Leviticus 25:1-7 in English.

A close reading of the Hebrew of these verses reveals a beautiful pattern.

Verse 4 begins:

 וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַיהוָֹה

The seventh year, this Shabbos of Shabboses, will be for the land, a Shabbat for God.

And two verses later:

וְהָיְתָה שַׁבַּת הָאָרֶץ לָכֶם לְאָכְלָה  ,לְךָ וּלְעַבְדְּךָ וְלַאֲמָתֶךָ וְלִשְׂכִירְךָ וּלְתוֹשָׁבְךָ הַגָּרִים עִמָּךְ:

And the Shabbat of the land will be for you to eat. For you, for your servants, for your laborers, for the strangers dwelling among you.

The repetition of this one letter, ל, meaning for or of, is astounding.

We hear that the Shmita is לארץ for the land – Land is not an abstract concept, but a living entity who observes a Shabbat in her own timescale.  Just as we rest every seventh day, so she rests every seventh year from human agricultural activity.  It is a Shabbat for her.

But it is also ליהוה for God.  Shmita is for the sake of the holy, the force of life that pervades us all.  It is not only in the human realm or even only in the environmental realm, but in the realm of the sacred.  It belongs to God.

And then finally, the Shmita is radically egalitarian in its human level.  It is for us, the readers of this text, but it is also for all the people we work with and who work for us.  It is for servants, laborers, and strangers.  

In the repetition of the letter lamed, we see a triangle start to emerge.  The Shmita year is connective tissue between us, the land, and God.  Just as we are to observe Shabbat every seven earth days, just as God rested on the seventh cosmic day of Creation, so the land rests every seventh year.  This is more than just poetic parallelism.  This is a theological claim of where we sit in relation to the rest of the universe.

Verse 26 reads:

 וְהָאָרֶץ לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת כִּי־לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי־גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי: 

This land, God tells us, cannot be sold permanently for the land is Mine, and you are sojourners and resident guests with Me.

Our contemporary culture would put us at the top of a pyramid, with land underneath us, something we use and bend to our will, a resource to be tapped.

Shmita teaches us our rightful place – Hashem, all that is holy, the force of Creation itself, is at the "top" of the triangle.  We and the land are in intimate relationship as the two "lower" points of this Shabbat observing cohort – Adam and Adamah, the Earthling and the Earth, together observing the rhythms of sacred work and sacred rest. A Shmita consciousness brings us into balance, into humility and love, as tenders and dwellers in a Garden that ultimately does not belong to us, but is in sacred relationship with us.

My God she said unto me

Do you like my garden so fair

You may live in this garden if you keep the grasses green

And I'll return in the cool of the day.

Now is the cool of the day

Now is the cool of the day

The earth is a garden, a garden of my God

And She walks in Her garden

In the cool of the day.