by Rabbi Louis Polisson
Congregation Or Atid of Wayland, MA
Rosh Ha-Shanah Day 1
1st of Tishrei, 5782 - Tuesday, September 7, 2021
This Rosh Ha-Shanah, we’re entering a Shemittah year. In Biblical Israel,
every seventh year was a Shemittah, which literally means “release,” when the land
was not actively farmed, and all debts were canceled. In the Yovel or fiftieth year,
after seven Shemittah cycles, the land was redistributed, and slaves were required
to go free. This system of rest and renewal fulfills on a grand social scale the ideal
of Shabbat, when we rest, accept the world as it is, and let go of what we cannot
control. But before we delve deeper into the relevance of Shemittah, I’d like to
share an anecdote about my almost-two-year-old son, Asher.
A few weeks ago, I was walking outside with Asher. He saw some ants on
the ground, pointed at them, and shouted “go away!”
His exclamation made me realize how easy it is for us to feel like the land is
ours, that it exists to be owned and controlled by us, as if nothing and no one is
allowed to trespass on it. But if we want to live peacefully and joyfully in this
world, we need to share our space with the manifold plants and animals. We need
to learn how to be in right relationship to them.
So I told him: “it’s okay, Asher - ants live outside, this is their home. We
don’t like them inside our house, but we need to let them live out here.”
What I was trying to teach Asher is that we need to be in right relationship
with the Earth - acting with care and respect for the natural world, understanding
that each creature, plant, and mineral plays an important role in the ecosystem.
Yesterday, we began Rosh Ha-Shanah by asking: What makes a relationship
healthy? We answered with a few qualities, including mutual respect,
understanding, and good communication. We must learn how to respect,
understand, and communicate with the natural world, since we, human beings, are
not in opposition to Nature, but, in fact, part of it. Our disconnect from the cycles
of the earth has made us physically and spiritually ill, but by engaging in
Shemittah, together with our communities, we can heal and be healed.
Gabriella, her sister, her mother and I have all recently been reading the
book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the
Teachings of Plants, by scientist, author, poet, and member of the Native American
Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer. This book has changed the way we each
relate to the world around us. In the opening of the book, Dr. Wall Kimmerer tells a
story that demonstrates how our society struggles to even imagine being in right
relationship with the more-than-human world. She writes:
“On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 9:35am, I am usually in a lecture
hall at the university, expounding about botany and ecology - trying, in short, to
explain to my students how...‘global ecosystems,’ function. One otherwise
unremarkable morning I gave the students in my General Ecology class a survey.
Among other things, they were asked to rate their understanding of the negative
interactions between humans and the environment. Nearly every one of the two
hundred students said confidently that humans and nature are a bad mix. Later in
the survey, they were asked to rate their knowledge of positive interactions
between people and land. The median response was ‘none.’
I was stunned,” writes Dr. Wall Kimmerer. “How is it possible that in twenty
years of education they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people
and the environment? Perhaps the negative examples they see every day -
[abandoned, polluted] brownfields, factory farms, suburban sprawl - truncated their
ability to see some good between humans and the earth. As the land becomes
impoverished, so too does the scope of their vision. When we talked about this
after class, I realized that they could not even imagine what beneficial relations
between their species and others might look like. How can we begin to move
toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the
path feels like? ” (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 6)
So? What does the path to sustainability feel like? Luckily, the Jewish model
of Shemittah offers us one path toward ecological sustainability and right
relationship with the earth.
According to the discussion on Shemittah in the Book of Leviticus, when the
rights of the land conflict with the needs of people, the rights of the land take
precedence. (Leviticus 26:34, 43) Wild animals have the right during the Shemittah year to forage freely
on land that would normally be farmed. (Leviticus 25:7) The latter rule suggests that Shemittah is a
kind of return to the Garden of Eden, where all creatures shared the same plant-based food supply. The Torah is explicit that our moral frame of reference must extend beyond the human world and that our sense of responsibility and care must include animals, plants, and the earth. In the words of Rabbi David
Seidenberg, “Justice can never be complete without justice for the land.” (Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology, p. 127) The Torah understands the land as a subject, with interests and rights that may take priority over human needs. Especially in the laws of the Jubilee and Shemittah years (Leviticus 25)
- and in the consequences that are supposed to befall the people if they do not observe these laws
(Leviticus 26) - it is clear that God is ready to take the side of the
land of Israel against the Jewish people. According to the Torah, humanity as a
species, and as a collection of individuals, has no moral superiority when its
interests conflict with the intrinsic interests of the land, who will “enjoy her
Sabbaths” (Leviticus 26:34, 43)
- even if that means the people are exiled or wiped out.
Yes, this is hard to swallow. What is incredible to me, however, is how
deeply and accurately the Torah understood the Earth. The Earth will survive, even
if we create conditions that are unlivable for human beings. And God will not
intervene on humanity’s behalf. According to one midrash, when God made the
first human, Adam, God showed him the panoply of creation and said to him: “See
all My works, how beautiful they are. All I have made, I have made for you. Take
care, therefore, that you do not destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no
one left to mend what you have destroyed.” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13. )
We can avoid such destruction if we act in accordance with the Torah’s
understanding that “human beings as a species are citizens of the land and not
rulers over it.” (Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology, p. 167)
From the perspective of the Torah’s land-centered ethic, we are
equal to, and not inherently better than, the earth and its creatures. The Torah's
ethic is also a natural outgrowth of the Hebrew root shared between Adam - the
human being and adamah - earth, in Genesis 2, and a corollary of the Torah’s
teaching that God put humans in the garden of Eden "le-ovdah - to serve her", a
phrase that uses the Hebrew verb la’avod, a word otherwise reserved for serving
God. In all these examples, the highest ethical priority is given to the land or, in
modern terms, to the ecosystem, while all the creatures - even human beings - find
their place and ethical status in the greater context of the earth. (Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology, p. 167)
In this way, the Torah guides us towards the vision of ecologist Aldo
Leopold - a world in which the righteousness of an action is determined by whether
it “preserve[s] the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community [of living
beings].” (Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology, p. 152)
The goal of Shemittah is to create right relationship between human beings
and the land, and between fellow human beings. Though the Shemittah laws
technically only apply to the Land of Israel, it offers a model that we should
practice in some form throughout the world. We should consume only what we
need and avoid harmful forms of agriculture and industry; we should allow the
land to rest.
Shemittah reminds us that everything we consume is a gift from the earth.
And, as Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “[g]ifts from the earth or from each other
establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to
reciprocate.” (Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 25)
Those who regularly garden or farm might better understand that
tending to plants opens an ongoing relationship between human and plant. Each
fruit or vegetable is a gift that comes not only from our efforts but from the success
of a healthy, complex ecosystem. Wall Kimmerer teaches us that “[f]rom the
viewpoint of a private property economy, a ‘gift’ is deemed to be ‘free’ because we
obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in a gift economy, gifts are not free. The
essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift
economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood
to be a ‘bundle of rights,’ whereas in a gift economy property has a ‘bundle of
responsibilities attached.’” (Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 28)
The Jewish approach to gifts and the earth is similar to this Indigenous
Native American approach. Western culture speaks the language of rights, while
traditional Jewish culture speaks the language of mutual obligations.
Western capitalism teaches acquisitiveness and inculcates a scarcity
mentality. And it is true that the earth is not an unlimited resource. Infinite growth
is not possible. But - the earth is a living resource that can heal and regenerate
and grow when we care for it.
So what does this set of responsibilities, this relationship of reciprocity look
like? We must understand our interconnectedness as a “covenant of reciprocity.”
(Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 28). We must become an active,
helpful part of the more-than-human natural world.
Viewing ourselves as separate from other creatures and the earth is, in effect,
“cutting off parts of ourselves, and parts of the image and essence of God.”
(Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology, p. 254)
In the words of Rabbi David Seidenberg, “the purpose of religion, from the
Torah’s perspective, was to teach people how to achieve a true symbiosis with the
land… to create a truly sustainable model of agriculture.” (Seidenberg, “The Third Promise,” in Tikkun Magazine, June 25, 2020,)The purpose of human endeavor is to bring tikkun - healing, repair, and balance - to our world.
We can reach this balance when we understand that we are a part of nature,
and that, as Dr. Wall Kimmerer says, “what happens to one happens to us all. We
can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual.”
(Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 15) This is true not
just within species across them as well: all flourishing across all living and
seemingly non-living things on this planet is mutual. The pandemic has begun to
teach us this truth. If we choose to learn from it, COVID could be a wake-up call to
the American Jewish community, and to the world, about the need to work more
cooperatively, in mutual responsibility. And even as disastrous as COVID-19 has
been, it still pales in comparison to the changes that a changing climate could
bring. (Cf. Nigel Savage (the founder of Hazon: the Jewish lab for sustainability) in this interview)
This is Jewish issue because Judaism cares deeply about the
more-than-human-world. There is no Jewish community, no State of Israel, no
United States of America, without breathable air and drinkable water.
The good news is that the Jewish People and the human species are
adaptable and have survived crises before. We have the spiritual and psychological
tools to remain kind, thoughtful, loving beings - even in the face of great suffering.
And, if we change our ways in the short-term, we can avert the most dire
outcomes. Teshuvah, tzedakah, u-tefillah, ma’avirin et ro’a ha-gezeirah - repenting
and changing our ways, directing our resources towards justice, and spiritual
practice can lessen and help us navigate the severity of the decree.
We must take both individual and communal action to heal the earth, so that
the land can observe her Sabbath - her year of rest and rejuvenation. The moral
covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been
given, for all that we have taken. It's our turn now, long overdue. We are each
obligated to contribute gifts in honor of this reciprocity.
This will not be easy. In the words of author Rebecca Solnit: “It will take
heroic effort, unprecedented cooperation, and visionary commitment. It would
mean making profound changes in our societies, economies, our ways of doing
things. But it is possible to do.” (Rebecca Solnit, “The IPCC’s latest climate report is dire. But it also included some prospects for hope,” in The Guardian, August 13, 2021,)
Even though individual action is not enough to stop climate change, taking
action toward sustainability can be a powerful spiritual practice. We can learn
about permaculture and native species and grow backyard gardens. We can redirect
some of our spending from supporting ecologically harmful mass production to
supporting people in need, which is one of the purposes of Shemittah. We can buy
used clothing, take better care of our clothes, or learn how to sew, instead of
supporting fast fashion. We can adopt a gratitude practice so that the winter snow
becomes not a burden to shovel, but a beautiful marvel that covers the earth like a
blanket. We can learn from our distant animal relatives, who slow down and
hibernate in the winter in order to rest and refresh. All of these practices will foster
a closer relationship to the land and the more-than-human world.
On a global level, What we must do is clear from scientific consensus: we
need to cut global emissions at least in half by 2034 and reach net zero carbon
dioxide emissions by 2050.
This is no longer about ensuring a livable planet for our grandchildren. It’s
for our children, for ourselves. It’s for the plant and animal species that could go
extinct within our lifetimes if we don’t change course immediately.
How exactly to make the profound changes needed to return to right
relationship with the land is a matter of reasonable debate. But experts have
suggestions. Several months ago, we were fortunate to hear about the
hope-inspiring work of scientists like Dr. Anthony Patt, who studies and teaches
about successful governmental approaches for eliminating greenhouse gas
emissions within a short timeframe, and how to adapt to the changes in climate that
are already occurring, in a program organized by the Eitz Ḥayyim Climate Change
Committee, led by Barbara Boykin and Tilia Klebenov-Jacobs.
Incredibly, miraculously, the more-than-human world really can heal itself, if
we slow down and stop our constant extraction of resources. Shortly after the
beginning of the COVID lockdowns in the spring of 2020, people noticed cleaner
air and clearer views of the sky just a few miles away in downtown Boston.
Similarly, some scientists project that we can halt and even reverse some of the
ecological devastation, on a global scale. But things need to change, and change is
hard. Thankfully, we’re in the season of teshuvah - the perfect time for change.
Take a moment now and ask yourself: How will I heal my relationship with
the more-than-human-natural world this year? How will I advocate and take action
for healthier, more sustainable human societies? How might I invite the natural
world to help me, and all of humanity, to heal, as this pandemic continues?
Thoughts of climate change, on top of the pandemic and other social issues,
may feel overwhelming, too frightening. We may consciously or subconsciously be
in denial. But we are not alone. We can join together to cultivate hope through
action, as we build sustainable communities. How will we join others in the
movement for global healing? How will we become part of the Shemittah this year,
and part of the movements to heal the earth, each and every day of our lives?
This new Shemittah year is an opportunity to reconnect and rebuild our
relationships with the more-than-human-world. We must engage as a community in
this critically important task. Shemittah is one of the keys to long-term healing and
renewal as we seek to survive this pandemic. This year, may we practice
Shemittah, building responsible, sustainable, right relationships with all people, all
beings, and all the earth. Shenat Shemittah metukah u-metakenet - may it be a
sweet and healing year of release. (This Hebrew greeting for the Shemittah year is from Rabbi David Seidnberg; English interpretation by Rabbi Polisson.)
Rabbi Polisson is thrilled to have joined Congregation Or Atid as Rabbi. He received rabbinic ordination and an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in May 2018. As a Gladstein Fellow in Entrepreneurial Rabbinic Leadership, he previously served as Rabbi of Congregation Eitz Chaim of Monroe, NY and as Rabbinic Intern at Temple Israel Center of White Plains, NY.