The Torah reading that calls us to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25) will be read this year (2012) on the morning of May 19. (Since the passage begins “B’Har Sinai, On Mount Sinai,” underlining its relationship to the Great Revelation, it could be appropriate to address also on Shavuot, the festival of Revelation, May 27-28.)
One of the practices it calls for is that every seventh year, the Earth shall get to rest from human domination, and workers get to rest from their toil. Deuteronomy (15: 1-18) adds that in the seventh year, debts that impoverish what we might call “the 99%” are annulled.
The spiritual/political bottom line of my letter today is to urge that when we read this passage at the end of May, we focus attention on acting it as well as reading it. Its teaching of economic justice and ecological sanity calls out to us, today. Our society has degraded ourselves through economic inequality and ecological destruction; what must we do to heal ourselves?
This seventh year (often called “sabbatical year” in conventional English), was in Hebrew a year of shmita (“release” or “non-attachment” in more accurate translation). And this spiraling pattern – six years of work ; a seventh year of release, pause, reflection, celebration, was in fact carried out in biblical history. The record of its dating has survived these thousands of years. The next Shmitah year will run from the fall of 2014 to the fall of 2015.
But we do not need to wait.
American society is already simmering with energy about economic inequality and ecological destruction. The weeks before and after May 19 could be a time for reflecting on these problems in the light of the portion in Leviticus and the related passage in Deuteronomy which calls for debts to be annulled.
Why did Deuteronomy take on this new approach to the seventh year?
Most modern scholars think that most of Deuteronomy was not (as the text claims) spoken by Moses as his farewells before he died and the band of runaway slaves crossed the Jordan to make a new society. They cite the form of Hebrew in Deuteronomy as far likelier to come from the time of social upheaval in the days of the prophets Jeremiah and Huldah.
Imagine those days as like our own –— Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, religious restoration and coercion, religious creativity and renewal. Hear a prophetic voice in that moment: “Pause from working the land, take a break from obeying your boss –— those are good, but what about the debts that are pressing down upon us? Abolish them!’
This authentic religious/ prophetic response, drawing on an old sacred text to confront a new social crisis – is exactly what we need today.
We face three crises that Shmitah addresses: The period from May 13 to May 30 could be a time for action on any of them:
1) Demand the Release/ remission of debt (for student loans that cannot be repaid in an era of high disemployment; foreclosed and “under-water” homes encumbered by unpayable mortgage debts; and the poorest nations that cannot afford even the interest on their loans, let alone the principal, without reducing their citoizens to serfdom.
2) Demand a Release for the Earth from the over-burning of fossil fuels that have overworked the Earth to the point where the global climate that sustains the entire web of life is threatened.
3) Demand reductions in work time and a great Release into Free Time, both to multiply jobs and to provide free time to millions of workers who have been disemployed and forced to overwork in ways that violate the profound teaching of the Shmitah as a model for freeing time.
Confronted by a profound planetary crisis, we need to do what our spiritual forebears did and as the spiral of Shmitah time itself teaches: Go back to our ancient wisdom in order to go forward into the future wisely. Chadesh yamenu k’kedem: Make our days new, creative, as were the days of long ago.
That sentence about “proclaiming liberty throughout the land” was engraved on the Liberty Bell by the Quakers who founded Pennsylvania as a “holy experiment” in justice and peacemaking long before American independence. The sentence was calling for a yovel – a Jubilee year, in conventional English; a “Year of Home-bringing,” according to Everett Fox’s translation of The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books). (Fox comes as close as possible to making the original Hebrew meanings, word-plays, and breathing patterns available in English. I strongly recommend his translation.)
This Home-bringing was to happen every 50th year, and through it the land was to rest from human imposition, while every family returned to its ancestral land-holding. The poor who had lost their land got it back; the rich who had amassed more land gave it up. Both were released from the burdens of inequality.
The call for this 50-year yovel may have been followed only once in biblical history, when the Israelite community that had lost all its land returned from exile in Babylonia. But the yovel did not stand alone. It was the climax of seven cycles of seven years. Every seventh year, the land and its farmers were to rest.