This morning I want to share with you some insights about the Sh’mittah Year and Climate Change and particularly with COP26 the Climate Change Conference on the horizon. But first, we have to understand our place in all of this, because my sense is that we’ve learnt in the last 18 months that we and our deeds really matter – but that we can forget that lesson as fast as you can say ‘Freedom Day’.
In the last 18 months we saw how every deed mattered. How we could each, individually make a difference. How we, you, mattered.
The Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) teaches that we should see our lives constantly as if our deeds are balanced on scales – at any time a mitzvah or a transgression could tip the balance one way or the other in the judgement of our lives. But Rabbi Eleazar son of Rabbi Simon goes further and says – actually if every person in the world is balanced with one deed tipping the scales in a given direction, then really the whole world is balanced and each deed we perform has cosmic significance for the universe – tipping in the favour of goodness, or otherwise…potentially destroying goodness.
This cosmic significance of even the smallest deed is one of the things I think we’ve learnt in the last 18 months. One passenger flying home from holiday can bring a new variant to the UK. A mask, a vaccine jab, a person working in a supermarket, a nurse, an act of shopping for neighbour, a donation of clothes to an Afghan refugee, one less car on the road because of lockdown. Suddenly we’ve learnt the lesson that our sages of the 2nd century already knew. If we all see ourselves as in the balance and holding the balance of the world, then even the smallest deed matters. The message of Rosh Hashanah, of the Shofar, according to Maimonides, is – you matter. Your deeds matter. The universe matters.
In some respects, this is at the heart of the idea in the Jewish mystical tradition – every deed has a significance for the universe and for God. When you act in a certain way, you are entering into a cosmic drama of existential importance. The mystics were intoxicated with a belief that in performing one mitzvah you might feel the Divine Breath of All Life or that one act can preserve or destroy the universe. It’s an astonishing, audacious and stunning sense of cosmic drama. One that I think we as Liberal Jews can embrace even beyond the secularised notion of Tikkun Ha-Olam – repairing the world.
But now if we’ve learnt that our deeds really have significance beyond the realm of our own imagined importance – if that has been a lesson then what does it mean for what happens over the next year as we grow through this pandemic?
That’s where I think Sh’mittah can give us the space to reflect and think. The Sh’mittah year, or sabbatical year, occurs every seven years and is described in detail in three places in the Torah. They’re not consistent in their descriptions with different emphases in different places.
Exodus 23 relates how the land is to lie fallow and its produce left to the poor and needy. It also includes the sense of our history as slaves in Egypt.
Leviticus 25 leaves us with a crucial grounded, earthiness that the land must have a Shabbat for God.
Deuteronomy 15 tells us that, on a sabbatical year, debts are cancelled and slaves set free and poverty will end and if it doesn’t you shouldn’t be hard hearted to those in need.
There are at least three messages I want you to take from this. The first is that this vision was a counter cultural vision against our human proclivities to apply technology to extend our material wealth. By being counter cultural it does not mean it is naïve, but it sets out an alternative. And in a world where that alternative is seemingly impossible, the sages apply the ideas of the Sh’mittah year to contain at least the possible unconstrained human tendencies to own more, to be more possessive, to amass more wealth. I don’t think it was workable then as purely applied and most people think it won’t work today, but I take from it a message about the vision and values and that is my second point.
Professor Blidstein z’l notes that the Sh’mittah Year teaches that we are connected to the land, we are part of nature however hard we try and exist beyond it, we are just like the wild beast or the tree. Blidstein writes about the message of sh’mittah:
“Man must relinquish that which his human capabilities have achieved, and in his use of the growth of the soil be reduced to the lowest of creatures that live off the soil. Man must live the rhythms of nature, despite his obvious ability and duty to circumvent them; he must live the rhythms of the countryside despite the city in which he dwells.” (Man and Nature in the Sabbatical Year).
And accompanied by this my third point, is a sense that the earth, everything we thought we owned, the materials, I guess even the bits on the computer which are just codes of 0s and 1s. None of it is really ours. People and land must be set free – that is the heart of the story of the Exodus, the ideal of Shabbat and the message of the Sabbatical Year. There is a fundamental repudiation of the notion of ownership and deriving maximal wealth and bounty from materials or people that we temporarily possess. In fact, there are some rabbinic sources that even suggest all fences were removed in the Sabbatical year to demonstrate even more fully the idea for “in destroying the fences one is pulling down the symbol and reality of private ownership.” (Blidstein) In that sense this message of Judaism asserts a theism of Psalm 24 – the earth and all it contains is God’s. And if you struggle with the Divine, at least Judaism here asserts the earth is not yours to possess but all life’s precious home.
My understanding is that these three things are powerful lessons for this moment as we emerge from this phase of the pandemic:
- a counter cultural vision of existence which at least constrains the ravages of human greed and exploitation;
- a humbling of human life to live in rhythm with nature and to not always try to triumph over it;
- and finally that ownership is ultimately an illusion and that the resources of the earth, the earth itself, the universe is not ours.
And so now, I suppose it’s obvious where I’m going with this when I circle back to Climate Change and Cop26. Need I labour the point that Judaism has a message for us, principles and values for how we approach the universe and take on the greatest challenge facing not just humankind but all life on this rock we call Earth. It is for us – not our children – to find solutions that work. For if not now, when.
Rosh Hashanah teaches us that every single deed we perform tips the balance not just in our lives but in the universe – you are important, in fact your very existence is of cosmological significance. And Sh’mittah teaches us the possibility of a counter cultural vision of the world for us to strive towards in which the vulnerable are protected, the land and earth’s resources are nurtured and not rapaciously exploited and all life, including human life, is freed to be held in delicate balance in God’s universe.
Ultimately – you and your deeds matter and you, like everything in this expanse of the universe, are but matter.