Little Actions Led by Big Dreams
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Deuteronomy’s vision for the sabbatical year is no less grand, but moves from agriculture to the economy. The Torah commands that “every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow.” (Deuteronomy 15:2) Essentially, in the sabbatical year, all debts, no matter how much, are cancelled. I’m not sure that we can say, like Leviticus, that the Torah is backed up by sound theory here. While economists advocate debt forgiveness in some situations, I don’t know if there is a benefit to cancelling all debts every seven years. What is clear is that the Torah thinks the goal is to care for the needy and induce all of us to be open-handed with
the poor. Like Leviticus, the Deuteronomic vision of shmittah comes with a warning that if one is too tight-fisted in the lead up to shmittah they will incur Divine anger. (Deuteronomy 15:9)
These two visions – one environmental, the other economic – are striking in their expansive nature. And while we expect laws like this from the Torah, they ring in our ears somewhat like a child asking for a pony. … “Okay, sweetie, we will close our business for a year, we promise. Yes, pumpkin patch, we can forgive everyone’s debts …” The thought may be nice, but it is practically impossible! How could everyone survive if we all stop farming for a year!? What kind of economy can exist if no one makes loans for longer than six years, and who would make a loan in year six, knowing they aren’t getting paid back? If it seems a little pie-in-the-sky, that’s because it is.
But here’s the secret: Apparently it never – or rarely ever – actually happened. The rabbis from antiquity to today agree that shmittah seems impossible. Opinions in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 13a) range from “the Jews never ever observed a sabbatical year” to “out of 800 years spent from conquering the Land of Israel to being kicked off it, our ancestors managed to observe shmittah less than half of the time.” Their cynicism makes sense – it’s hard to imagine anyone could obey all the laws of shmittah.
The rabbis are so sure that people can’t handle those laws that they use all their tricks to mitigate them. One of the first rabbinic loopholes ever created is for shmittah. Hillel devises a financial workaround where all debts are transferred to the rabbinic court, which can hold them uncancelled through shmittah, ensuring that people will actually loan each other cash. Generations later, a rabbi – looking out for farmers in Israel – solves the whole not-working-the-land thing by borrowing a custom from Pesach. He tells Jewish farmers to simply sell their acreage to a non-Jew for the year. And yet, the rabbis don’t discontinue the count. Despite their minimizing, we still mark shmittah every seven years. Why even keep the thing on the books? What value does it have for us today?
Values are precisely the answer. The principles latent in the utopic vision shmittah presents are the reason we keep it around. It is also why we are talking about it on Rosh Hashannah, a day that asks us to examine the world as it is and imagine the world as it ought to be. Perhaps keeping even an unattainable goal alive helps us move a little closer to its fulfillment. Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of modern Israel, says that we keep shmittah
around for its values and that even rabbinic rituals getting us out of it give us an important reminder of the ethics contained in the sabbatical year. Are we going to cancel all debts? No, of course not. But maybe the process of transferring debts to the rabbinic court reminds us to not be so attached to our money. Are any of us going to stop working this year? Let all our lands, practices, and investments lie fallow without benefiting from their produce? Probably not. But even the act of pretending to relinquish our revenue streams reminds us that we don’t need to squeeze every penny out of a business. We don’t need to increase profits each quarter, and we don’t need to work ourselves or the land unsustainably. … Shmittah reminds us that, if we want, we have the ability to stop.
The Torah’s shmittah reminds us of the need for economic and environmental longevity. Work need not be constant, and some debts might be better off forgiven. These questions are certainly live for us today, so what should a shmittah year look like now? Even if we don’t control loans or lands, it is still important. This sabbatical year, is, like any sabbatical, about taking stock. … It is about spending a year completely out of the ordinary, in which we can heal, rest, appreciate, and most importantly, dream about what an ideal world could look like. I think most of us can understand a bit of what this is like, as we have all just finished a year that was out of the ordinary – a year when we were forced to stop much of our lives and contemplate, however nervously, the state of the world.
Given that state of the world, the sabbatical year could not come at a better time. Shmittah – release – is something we all desperately need right now. Our lives are full of more stress and anxiety than ever. Our planet is on fire and the window is closing on our ability to avoid catastrophe. Our economies are unequal, uncertain, and unable to address society’s needs. I cannot think of a more important year for a ritual that makes some big asks of us in the hopes of achieving a more verdant, just, and ideal world. We each have a role to play in bringing to life our vision for a better future. The questions we must ask ourselves are what are the values that we hold dear? Are we living up to them? and what changes can we make this year to help us make our values real?
“Do we live up to our ideals” is a question we often ask this time of year, but how often do we reevaluate what our ideals actually are? Because whether we can articulate them or not, we do – each of us – live our lives according to principles; principles that might change over the course of a lifetime. So how do know what our values are? Look to the little things that reveal much. We make hundreds of decisions a day and they all, ultimately, are
reflective of our priorities. We can recognize our values latent in the choices we make and how we live our lives. I want to share with you one of my favorite passages of the Talmud. It inspires much of the way I live my life. I return to it time and again and it even has a Hebrew pun thrown in!
אָמַר רַבִּי אִילְעַאי, בִּשְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים אָדָם נִיכָּר: בְּכוֹסוֹ, וּבְכִיסוֹ וּבְכַעְסוֹ.
“Rabbi Ilai says a person is known by three things: their cups (koso), their pocket (kiso), and their anger (kaso)” (BT Eruvin 65b). So according to Rabbi Ilai, these are the three things that give away a person’s character. If you want to know what someone is truly like, or if you want to know yourself, look to these three things: cups, pocket, and anger.
I want to take these three out of order and start with anger because anger is where I think all of this can start. The traditional read of “a person is known by their anger” is that one knows a person by what they are like when they are in a rage. But I want to flip it and say that a person is known by what makes them angry. Shmittah and Rosh Hashannah ask us to see the world as it is and imagine what it could be. Righteous anger is what we feel when we see the world falling short. The Tanakh is full of prophets, sensitive to evil, flinging their rage at those whose ethics don’t measure up. God threatens anger throughout the Torah, and it is almost always in connection with violations where Israel worships idols or when humans mistreat one another (especially the downtrodden). So through God’s anger, we learn something of God’s values: loyalty and care for others. We have different kinds of anger – at ourselves, at others, and when the wifi goes out. … But the righteous anger that we feel when we see something wrong in the world. … That anger is a signpost leading us to our values. This year, we should follow that anger at what we know to be wrong and channel it into working to make things right.
When R’ Ilai says a person is known by their “cup,” that is usually read to mean alcohol. If you want to know what a person is truly like, you have to see them when they are drunk. But I think in our case, we should disregard the traditional read. “Cups,” in my view, is not about intoxication but consumption. The decisions that go into what a person eats, imbibes, and purchases – these are things that tell us the nature of a human.
We are, as individuals, constantly making values-based decisions about what to eat. The upsurge of fake meat and growth in fair trade show that as a society we are reevaluating many of our consumer habits. We are adding new criteria to the lists we consider when buying. We already have: Does it taste good? is it healthy? How much does it cost? Is it kosher? We should
start moving up the list: Is this food healthy for the planet? Is it healthy for the people involved in its production? There is a lot that goes into each bite we take and we are known by the choices we make. This is an area that I see for myself as a place I don’t live up to my values. The main culprit in my diet is meat. The production and consumption of meat is a huge problem for the planet’s ecosystem, as well as the human and animal lives involved. Shmittah is a year of big decisions and letting things lie fallow. … To that end, I am going to be a vegetarian for at least the shmittah year. This is a way I will try to align my cups with my conscience.
Kiso, a pocket, is perhaps the most important, and hardest to talk about from the Talmud’s list. While all of the commentaries agree that “pocket” here means “money,” there is a rabbinic debate about which aspect of our finances is meant. The medieval commentator Rashi says that how one makes their money – the way they do business – is an indicator of character; while Rabbeinu Chananel claims it is not where the money comes from, but rather what we do with it once we have it that defines us.
Right about now, I can feel everyone starting to shift uncomfortably in their seats. … ‘He’s talking about money!?’ Most of us get awkward when money is mentioned. In her book Uneasy Street, Rachel Sherman writes that for most Americans, not only is talking about money considered out of bounds, but it is often a taboo even among family and close friends. So if you are feeling a little uncomfortable right now, that’s normal – and its intentional. Our economic power is perhaps the single greatest tool each of us here today has. It is our surest way to effect positive change in the world. Despite our desire to be hush about things, what we do to earn and how we spend our money is how we are known, and it is an area of all our lives in need of reckoning. R’ Ilai is not saying that it is a sin to have money, nor is it a sin to have lots of money. He is saying that what we do with our money, whether we have $10 or a billion, shows what our true character is.
Rashi’s reading – that we are known by the way in which we earn our money – is both easy to address and hard to fix. It is easy to say that we should conduct ourselves ethically in our business dealings. We all sort of know and have agreed what that looks like. The Torah is full of laws governing how we conduct business. What is harder are some of the seemingly moving targets of inclusivity, equity and sustainability that are being asked of us today. Whether we run a company, a household or a synagogue, we must ask ourselves: What do our hiring practices look like? Do we grow and build ecologically? What is the culture of the place? None of this is easy, and many times ethics and equity take a bite out of the
bottom line. However, these questions are important. We should consider how the ways we create wealth for ourselves affect what the world looks like for others.
For Rabbeinu Chananel, the question isn’t how we got our money, but what we do with it. The main mitzvah one can engage in with their money is of course tzedekah. I would venture a guess that tzedakah is one of the most observed mitzvot in our community. That is a testament to all of you and also to the power and importance of giving. Multiple times over the holidays, we declare that tzedakah is one of the three things with the ability to move God and change God’s decree against us. Tzedekah has power to transform the life of the person receiving it, and it transforms the life of the giver. It reminds us of what is important in this world and of our ability to give of ourselves to make the world better. In this year of shmittah, we can all find a way to increase our giving. We might not stop working the land, but surely we can give more of our produce away for at least a year.
In addition to what we give away, there is much we can do with what we keep to make our values known. Earlier this year, PAS hosted a panel about the role of private investment in Tikkun Olam. One of our guests, an impact investor name Geeta Aiyer, discussed a pillar of her approach known as the “use of voice.” Use of voice is the ability of an investor to engage with corporate managements and align interests toward long-term and responsible thinking. In other words, we can help bend the arc toward justice through our investments. This isn’t about tzedakah but profit, explained David Blood, another of our panelists. He posited that using the best financial tools of our day, sustainable investing makes the most economic sense. Investing with an eye on values is precisely what the Torah asks of us this year. Shmittah requires that we fallow our fields and forgive our debtors not only as a reminder that we can always do with a little less, but to teach us to make investments in our future, even if they seem against our short-term interest.
Another shmittah challenge I want to pose to you is this: As you figure out what an ideal world looks like to you … invest in it. Find groups working to make your values real and support them. Now, there is no incrementalism in shmittah – it asks for big and bold action. But even if we don’t have the ability for that, think of the good that could be done with just a little. How large an impact we make if everyone who is listening moved one percent of their capital into investments that make money and make the world better at the same time.
This is a lot, and I know I have made more specific asks of a listener than is usual. You might think this is a lot of talk of hopes and visions for the future without a full grasp on the present, and of course that may be true. The rabbis in the Talmud had an insult for a rabbi spending too much time on the fancy and esoteric. … They said he was legislating laws about a tower in the sky. Whether that is the origin of the phrase “castles in the air” or not is unclear, but it is a fair critique of what Jewish tradition is doing with the sabbatical year.
Yet I remind you that this is part of our calendar, and as we leave this place today, we begin the year of shmittah. The sabbatical year is an opportunity to take a pause and think big picture, an opportunity to dream about what we want the world to look like for ourselves and seven years from now and seven years after that. It is an opportunity to determine if we are living in accordance with those dreams. If the answer is “no,” then shmittah is a time for bold moves to help us realign our lives with our values. Our values are known to us, they manifest in the details of how we live our lives, in our consumption, our finances and our passion … b’koso, b’kiso, b’kaso.
Shmittah reminds us that not all our ideals can be made real so easily, but that we must do what we can to try. We must take drastic steps to bring our dreams closer before they escape us completely. The future is uncertain, and it might remain that way for some time but the dream is still important. The vision of utopia has value even if it can’t be realized just yet, if for no other reason than it gives us a blueprint for action. In the words of Thoreau, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” (Walden)