The Soul of the World: Shmittah and Climate Change
Rabbi Scott Perlo
It bothers me when articles from The Onion become primary source material for my sermons. Somehow, America’s best satirical newspaper is capturing the truth more and more.
400,000 people marched for global climate legislation and action in New York a couple of weeks ago. Yet the UN conference that occasioned the protest lasted all of one day. Here’s The Onion:
“In an overwhelming show of support for dangerously escalating temperatures, 7.1 billion people from nearly every nation on earth staged massive demonstrations yesterday in favor of global warming. “Whether they were sitting in their living rooms, watching football at a bar, or just driving somewhere, a sizable portion of the world let its support for climate change be heard loud and clear,” said environmental policy expert Janet Purvis…At press time, the 7.1 billion protesters were reportedly making plans to stage similar rallies every day for the foreseeable future.”
So heartbreaking. So accurate.
I want to talk about the changes to our planet occasioned by our agency, and the danger that we face. But my hope is that this will be a different drash about the environment and climate change than you’ve heard before.
That is because I don’t think that I need to detail the various depredations to our world, nor make a case for the importance of reversing or ameliorating those changes. You’ve heard all the arguments long ago; reports of that damage are in every paper, on every site. You certainly don’t need me to remind you, nor, I think, to cheerlead the cause of environmental justice.
Rather, what I want us to talk about is: given that there’s widespread agreement on the global effects of our way of life, why are we so hampered in doing anything about it? We are the 7.1 billion. We know what we’re doing. Yet our whole lives are built such that we propagate that damage every day. And, were we to be truly honest, I think we feel ourselves completely unable to change our ways because of the practical exigencies of how we live: The food and clothing that I buy is shrouded in acres of packaging. The work that I do produces reams of spent paper – you don’t know want to know how many trees sacrificed themselves for this Yom Kippur. The delicious, delicious air conditioning that I love so squanders obscene amounts of energy.
So I want to address the difficulty of such profound change from an entirely spiritual perspective, to try to get at the root of what it means to change from the inside out.
Let us consider three circles, and give thought to the three concentric arenas in which we live. They are the world, the community, and the self. To walk the paths of righteousness is to know, intimately, how our actions affect each of these three spheres. To be a hasid, to have true reverence, is to know how each circle affects us[PM2] . I think that a living consciousness of all three is the apex of the spiritual ideal.
Aware of this, the Torah teaches us a manner with which to live in all three. And in testament to its[PM3] wisdom and its holiness, our holy words teach us one word with which to regard them all.
That word is Shabbat.
To explain, I’ll work my way from the outermost circle to the innermost, and then back again.
Let us speak of the world. This year is the final year of a seven-year Jewish cycle called shmittah. Shmittah started, in fact, on Rosh Hashanah.
If you’ve not heard of shmittah, don’t be surprised – it’s only observed in the land of Israel, and, until recently, hadn’t been practiced in 2000 years. But don’t let its obscurity to us fool you: shmittah is a central preoccupation in the Torah; it serves as a source of profound spiritual preoccupation for the greatest Jewish minds.
Shmittah is, quite simply, a Shabbat for the earth.
“God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is God's sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land. [What grows while] the land is resting may be eaten by you, by your male and female slaves, and by the employees and resident hands who live with you. All the crops shall be eaten by the domestic and wild animals that are in your land."
This is to say that, for an entire year, there was neither sowing nor planting nor harvesting. Every inch of the land lay fallow, not an acre to be touched.
Imagine the audacity of this mitzvah. The society of the Torah – well into the Common Era, was agrarian. These people were farmers. And for an entire year, they farmed…nothing. The burden on their way of life was immense, the effect on their commerce, profound.
In addition to the agricultural mitzvah, there was a stunning financial mitzvah. In the seventh year, all debts were forgiven. Being rather saddled with student loan debt, let’s just say that the notion appeals.
What is yet more audacious, what’s even crazier, is that they actually did it. This wasn’t theory; Shmittah was practiced.
The question, of course, is why? Why would an entire country give up their normal way of life for a year? What would compel them?
I promise to try to answer the question…but not just yet.
From the world to the community: to be Shabbat observant in contemporary society is to appear insane. There’s a perfectly good car that isn’t used. Perfectly good elevators shunned in favor of walking nine flights of stairs to your friend’s apartment. Perfectly good episodes of Orange Is The New Black that need binge watching.
And I want to cop to it. Shabbat observance is insane.
Except that Shabbat is only insane in relation the rules of the larger society in which we live. Those rules are largely arbitrary, but they are such a part of our lives that we rarely notice their artificiality.
For those in ties - do you really think there’s a compelling reason to wrap that nooselike piece of fabric around your necks? For those in heels, explain to me it’s mandatory that you stand on a few inches of toothpick right?
Football is on Sunday is Only Because the 8 hour work day and 40 hour week created a weekend.
The school year runs September to May Only Because there was a time when children were expected to help their parents with spring planting and fall harvest.
Many of you had to drive to get here Only Because when we started the mass production of the automobile, people of means thought it fashionable to move far out of the city, and suburbia was built to separate private homes from communal and commercial spaces – a move considered by movements like New Urbanism to be a massive mistake, as an aside.
A stunning percentage of what we accept as The Way Things Are – those rules are in fact Only Because.
Except that in the 21st century, today, as the pace of life, increases, frenetically quickens, a pace breakneck and then more breakneck, a forced stoppage is feeling less and less insane.
Shabbat observance creates a very different kind of world: one in which efficiency is the least valued priority; in which people must live in physical proximity of each other; in which stopping, ceasing, is the best thing that one can do. In the context of a mechanized, mobilized, technologically forward society, the choice to do so, even for a day, is a clash against the dominant values. Shabbat is deviant.
Nor can it be done alone. To observe every Shabbat by oneself is a form of torture: the doors to society literally closed against you by the requirement of money or the use of electricity.
Except for the Smithsonian, which is free, so one can go on Shabbat. If you go to the zoo, you can see Bao Bao. That’s nice.
Shabbat demands a community.
Sociologist Peter Berger wrote: “Unless our theologian [religiously committed individual] has the inner fortitude of a desert saint, he has only one effective remedy against the threat of cognitive collapse … He must huddle together with like-minded fellow deviants and huddle very closely indeed. Only in a counter-community of considerable strength does cognitive deviance have a chance to maintain itself…”
The question, of course, is why? Why would an entire community give up their normal way of life, every week, for a full day? Why would they act against the structure of dominant society? What would compel them?
From the community to the self: Shabbat’s negative commandments dwarf its positive mitzvot. That means that the essence of Shabbat is found in not doing, in what I do not do, in from what I prevent myself.
The self chafes against these restrictions. Why again can I not hop on a plane if that makes me happy? What’s the reason I can’t work if there’s work to be done? Why can’t I drive if it’s more convenient? And what is this book that’s supposed to tell me how to live?
Worse yet, when any command - especially a religious one - is forced on us from without, against our will, the resentment that results poisons every fruit that springs from its tree, no matter how well intentioned.
So why would a person submit to restrictions of her person? Why would she limit her way of life, especially when there are so many demands on her? What would compel her?
Shabbat is compelling because it teaches one to stop. If one wants to find God, if one wants to find oneself, one must first learn how to stop, how to cease. I know of no other way[PM4] . Otherwise one is drowned in the hubbub and the busy. To cease is to clean and to clear out, and in that clearing a thing that is delicate, yet absolutely essential, finally has the chance to grow.
My favorite teacher, the great Rav Kook, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing, wrote about Shabbat, “This national treasure that is imprinted deep within us, the image of a world that is good, upright, and godly – aligned with peace, justice, grace, and courage, all filled with a pervasive divine perspective that rests in the spirit of the people – cannot be actualized within a way of life that is purely businesslike. Such a life, full of frenetic action, veils the glory of the divine soul, and the soul’s clear light is blocked from shining through the overpowering mundane reality.”
From the self to the community.
As Shabbat clears out the detritus of the self and cultivates the soul, so too does it push us to transcend the “Only Because,” of society’s rules. He says, “There is always a tension between listening to the voice…that calls us to be kind, truthful, and merciful, and the conflict, compulsion, and pressure to be unyielding that surround buying, selling, and acquiring things. These aspects of the world of action distance us from the divine light and prevent its being discerned in the public life of the nation. This distancing also permeates the morality of individuals like poison. Stilling the tumult of social life from time to time in certain predictable ways is meant to…touch the divine qualities inside them that transcend the stratagems of the social order and that cultivate and elevate our social arrangements, bringing them towards perfection.”
Even in the face of tremendous societal pressure, in which every moment, every circumstance pushes us to move forward, the message of Shabbat is to stop. And damnit if it can’t be done; people are doing it. That is the deviant wisdom, the revolutionary brilliance of Shabbat: it imbues into our souls the unequivocal, indisputable knowledge that it can be done, that it can be different.
From the community to the world.
The way that we treat this world demands that we destroy it in order to benefit from it: The disposability of what we own, the waste of materials in how we package, rampant overuse of energy, the continual plumbing of the land for food, resources, without cease.
In destroying the world, we destroy ourselves.
Rav Kook goes on to say, “What Shabbat does for the individual, shmitta,” the land’s Shabbat, “does for the nation as whole.” But that sentiment seems incomplete, for shmitta also belongs to the land, addresses its needs.” However, in his concept, we belong to the land to, and are part of it. And he says, “ The people works with its soul force on the land, and the land works on the people, refining their character in line with the divine desire for life inherent in their makeup. The people and the land both need a year of Shabbat!”
I think that what we are all waiting for, what, deep down, we are all relying upon, is that circumstances will come upon us from the outside that will compel us to act, that will give us no choice but to change the way we treat the planet because there will be such an undeniable connection with how we ourselves are treated by it. We’ll feel motivated, we say, we hope. We’ll be moved to change.
But to wait for those circumstances, I fear, will mean arriving in a global state that is dire in the extreme. We should not wait to suffer before we change. We should not wait for tragedy.
But there is another choice than to be compelled from without. And that is to choose to be compelled from within. To choose to have to; to accept to have to. The element of choice banishes the resentment that accompanies commands from without. The element of obligation ensures that we will not falter from within. Though the demands of climate change are scientific, I believe that it’s time to be religious about how we confront them. Motivation is a fickle thing. “We have to” is the lever that moves the world.
So this is the moment, the moment to ask ourselves: what’s it going to be? What are we willing to give up? Will it be that, one day a week, no matter what, that car will sit in the driveway? Will it be that thermostat never goes above a certain temperature, or below one? Here’s one that’s personally painfully; will it be that there’s No More Take Out.
You tell me. Tell me what it’s going to be. But when you tell me, there’s yet one more step, one requirement – even more difficult than the giving up. Whatever it is has to be done in community. An individual isn’t strong enough. The effect of community is exponential.
What I know, with deep conviction in my soul, is that to face the environmental struggle that will define us for centuries, we need Shabbat to teach us that we have not lost the possibility for global change. I believe that after 2000 years, the time for shmittah has come again.