"Six years you shall sow your land and gather its fruits. But in the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie still; so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat, and in like manner shall you deal with your vineyard and with your olive trees." --Exodus 23:10-11
The Torah relates that every seven years the land is to lie fallow; we are not to do any agricultural work on the land that we possess. This law is called shmitah, and it measures cycles of seven: every seventh year the land rests, and after seven cycles of seven years, we celebrate a yovel, a jubilee year.
This is a radical shift in perspective. It is not, "What farm can I next acquire?" Nor is it, "In what car should they see me driving to that farm?" This injunction reminds us that we can to borrow the field for our benefit during our lifetime, but that it is not ours to possess. This mitzvah is repeated three separate times in the Torah: once in Exodus and once in the Book of Leviticus (where it adds a unique phrase, that this is Shabbat L'Adonai, or "Sabbath for God," a designation bestowed to no other festival. They are never a Yom Tov La'Shem -- for God. They are always for us. But shmitah is a Sabbath for God). And third, the Book of Deuteronomy, where the final time shmitah is mentioned, adds that shmitah also nullifies debt. If someone owes money, the seventh year cancels the debt. (Let's all shutter just for a moment at that radical idea!)
This cycle of seven-times-seven culminates in the liberation of slaves. Hebrew slaves are liberated at the end of the seventh year. It is a jubilee year, even though there were slaves who said, "No thanks, I want to stay in servitude," they must go free; against their will, they go free.
How was a jubilee year announced? With the blowing of the shofar. When was the jubilee announced? On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this most introspective of days, this is precisely the day when Israel is commanded to release, to restore, to simplify. Shmitah and yovel are so important that the ancient midrash Pesikta Rabbati records they are among the seven commandments that illuminate the world.
This is the paradox of life and of shmitah: We truly own only what we give away. Those things that we hold on to are taken from us, break or perish with us. My family endured the unfortunate circumstance of disposing of the property of my deceased wife's parents home a few years ago. Elana and her brother claimed a few cherished mementos. But the rest of their lifelong acquisitions were simply removed. When my stepfather passed away, his family had the house cleared out by a cleaning company who just hauled it away.
The possessions we hoard, accumulate, acquire, become someone else's trash. But when we designate what we possess, and we use it to make someone else's life better, we own that achievement forever. We are, all of us, finite; we are, all of us, mortal; and we are alive for a very short span. We can use that time to live lives dedicated to a delusional comfort: "Maybe if I own more I'll win!"
Expressed as greed, the desperate need to acquire emerges from our own fear, our own weakness, our own terror at the dark and the loneliness. We purchase and acquire, hoping that the acquisitions will somehow be a guardian against all that terrifies us. The reality is quite the opposite What we think we own, we use for a short time, and then, with our will or against it, it will be taken from us and recycled.
But if we acknowledge that our meaning is expressed through bonds of love, fellowship, a common humanity and a common destiny -- if we understand that our happiness in inextricably linked to each other's joy and wellbeing -- then we have a chance to truly live.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg reminds us in "To Embrace with Open Arms" that it is erroneous to think we can cling to our possessions or each other. Life teaches us to embrace and release. We commence life hugging our parents, and then release as we grow into independence. We embrace our children, and then send them off when it is time for them to go. We hug each other, and at some point we will have to release that hug too. We embrace with open arms. And when you can embrace with open arms, then you hold love in your heart; that embrace never ends.
The jubilee is a celebration of restoring things to their proper owners, a Shabbat LaShem, a Sabbath of the Lord's, because God's vision is a broad, beautiful and reliable vision: We do not have to possess to be worthy. This giving away is God's gift to all of us. We don't earn the gift; we live it, and we share it.
We have the opportunity to live in the light; to shine our love on each other; to care for the mourner; to heal the sick; to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. Shmitah is a call to assist those who lose in the relentless striving to acquire, because their humanity will enhance our own.
On this day, Yom Kippur, we are told to ignore our wealth, to ignore our body. We are told to abstain for a day, to refrain from food and drink and exquisite jewelry and the kinds of ways that we augment our own importance in the everyday.
This call is not imposed as a burden; it is meant as liberation. In biblical and rabbinic legend, angels don't worry about what meal is coming next. They don't worry about where they are going to get the next drink or salary or luxury car. They sing, praise and serve. On Yom Kippur we are free as the angels are free -- if we can remember to respect ourselves and to love each other; if we can take our love for each other and mobilize, "To care for the widow and the orphan, to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless." When we refocus our own vision beyond acquisition to joyous sharing, of shmitah, then we share God's vision for the world; a vision that is loving and nurturing, resilient and forgiving.
Then, we embodying the generosity and engagement that pulsates at the heart of Jewish tradition, this day will truly be a portal to a Shabbat LaShem, a Sabbath of the Lord, and we will be living the kind of covenanted community that can ennoble humanity and all creation.