We are living in the midst of a collective sabbatical. According to the Jewish calendar, this year, 5775, is the shmita year, the seventh year in a cycle of sevens that reaches back to biblical times. It is a year in which the agricultural dimension of our food system, and our associated habits of consumption, are radically changed. It is a year in which we are called to live off the fullness of the land, convert our agricultural economy into a gift economy, and otherwise rehearse living in a just world in which all land and life is reckoned as one inexorably interlaced community.
It works like this:
Every seven years, farmers let their fields lie fallow. No plowing, no sowing, no harvesting, no selling. Instead, you — your family, your neighbors, the entire community — are to live off all that the land yields on its own in this year of rest.
Some people see this as a biblical version of crop rotation or land restoration. That is, a strategy for renewing the land after farming-as-usual has depleted its nutrients and lessened its fertility. But if that were the case, how would depleted land be able to sustain a whole society? Rather, this practice assures just the opposite: Because every seven years you may not work the land, and still that land needs to feed and sustain you, you must exercise farming practices that enrich the land, and not deplete it, so that the yield of the seventh year, sprouting on its own, will be abundant enough to feed everyone.
Fences are knocked down. Everyone, farmer and neighbors alike, have the same rights and relationship to the land. Everyone comes and takes what they need. Neighbors meet one another on the same farm fields day after day, willy-nilly spending time in the presence of one another throughout the year.
Shmita reminds us that we farm the land not as owners but as stewards. Leviticus teaches: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; you are visiting tenants staying but a while with Me.” When land is “owned” and “sold” in the Bible, it is not the land but the rights to occupy and farm the land that are sold. The land itself belongs to God. We tend to forget this in the rough-and-tumble market world. So in the seventh year, we are reminded.
Debts are forgiven or suspended. Without the agricultural sector feeding the marketplace, the flow of money is disrupted and partially replaced with a gift economy. The land freely provides for us all during this year (as long as we have provided well for it during the previous six years). We, in turn, relate to each other beyond the monetary calculus. The social and economic inequity of debt, indeed of wealth itself, that heaps up over time, is, at least partially, suspended.
Make no mistake. This was not an easy or welcome prescription for those living in the biblical era. (These restrictions applied only to Jews living in Israel.) And it is certainly impossible to literally abide by these restrictions today. But we can nonetheless appreciate and seek to apply shmita’s underlying ethic to contemporary practices, for it may offer us invaluable correctives of attitude and methods that can help us avoid the crises toward which our contemporary practices are driving us.
Five points comprise Shmita’s ethic.
The earth does not belong to us. Whether we believe it was created by a loving God or formed through the mystery of primeval gas tumbling into life, we neither created it nor merited it. It is a gift.
We are transient recipients and beneficiaries but not owners of this gift. We are therefore allowed to use but not consume or otherwise destroy its resources (much less its rhythms and heartbeat). We are its stewards, tasked with pursuing our daily deeds guided by gratitude more than greed, awe more than pride, and responsibility more than entitlement.
We must husband the Earth and its resources so that they improve under our tenure, and do not degrade, so that we may hand it on healthy to the next generation.
We need to build intentional, cyclical brakes into our economic system both as incentives to assure the wise use of the Earth, and to reclaim and re-establish more equitable human relations.
We need to be more judicious — as both lenders and borrowers — in our lending and borrowing, anticipating true capacity for repayment and forgiving portions when full compliance would be more than the borrowers can bear.
What would happen if we took these lessons of shmita seriously and built laws that enforced these practices of land and resource stewardship; economic norms that pre-empted the boom-and-bust cycles of the marketplace; and an attitude that continually reminded us that we are all in this together?