September 8, 2021
A Year of Release (Rosh HaShanah 5782)
I’m a city person. I love theater. I hate driving. And I feel most at home amid the cacophony and chaos of this amazing place. But as often as I can, I hightail it out of here and head for my family’s house in CT where, as my children will tell you, there is absolutely nothing to do.
When we bought the place, we were inspired by some combination of frugality and laziness to let the side yards grow wild. And now, these untamed fields are my favorite places. There are stands of milkweed, and wildflowers, and at night, the whole yard vibrates with the sounds of crickets and frogs and who knows what else. Creating this beautiful landscape actually was incredibly difficult for me, because it required me to do ...nothing. Doing nothing doesn’t come naturally to me nor, I suspect, to most of you. That’s why, once every 7 years -- in fact, this year, the one we started yesterday -- the Torah demands that both we and the land take a Sabbatical. In Hebrew, it’s called a Shmita Year -- a year of release.
In Leviticus1 God tells Moses, “Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year, the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vine . . . But you may eat whatever the land during its Sabbath will produce.”
So for six years, the Israelites were supposed to work the land, but in the seventh year, they were commanded to sit back and let the earth produce what it wanted.. God acknowledges how scary this is. God says, “You might ask ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year?” The answer? “I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three.”
The Shmita Year is Shabbat brought to scale. Instead of merely pausing from work one day out of seven, it calls upon all of us to pause for an entire year, with faith in God’s promise that if we do so, we will find that we have enough, and even be satisfied.
This commandment is radical, and wildly impractical. In fact, Maimonides hints that we might not fully observe the shmita year until the Messiah comes2. But as audacious as it sounds, Shmita invites us to imagine a world in which we do not see the earth simply as fuel for our own advancement and productivity. Instead, we wait to receive the blessings that nature will bestow on us in its own time.
In the book of Deuteronomy, God promises the Israelites “a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey . . . where you will lack nothing.3 This comes with a warning, however. “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in . . . and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty . . . and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.”4 Instead, they are to recognize that the land belongs to God and whatever abundance they have produced is not really theirs at all. Even the skills they use fostering this bounty are God-given.
Shmita comes every seven years to remind us of this lesson in humility. Because in the Shmita year, we find that even without our effort, things still grow. There might not be grain, but the trees bear fruit, and vegetables emerge from the seeds that fell last year. And in a Shmita year, everyone is allowed to wander into the fields, and see what has grown where they least expect it.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us (except for maybe a couple of our livestreamers) are not farmers. The domain of our productivity lies not in those squares of green or gold that we see when we look out the window of an airplane, but rather in the squares that lie within the boundaries of our calendars. Like farmers testing the latest fertilizer, we try out time-management apps and productivity tools to optimize our yield. We schedule ourselves for back to back Zooms. We bill our time in 6-minute increments. We listen to audiobooks while exercising so we can check two boxes at once. We are a society running on fumes, whether they be industrial fertilizer in our fields or the caffeine in our coffee.5
So what if during this shmita year -- we just stopped?
Impossible, right? As I said that, did you feel your stomach clench? Did your chest get tight? Mine did. We live in a non-stop culture of achievement. So it’s easy to believe that our efforts alone sustain us and if we stop, everything will fall apart. We are so used to white-knuckling it through life that the prospect of letting go seems impossible. If it were easy, we wouldn’t need the commandment.
But as Rabbi David Ingber teaches: “Something miraculous happens when we stop. We get to experience the power that nature knows called dormancy. . . . There are seeds inside each and every one of us . . . that cannot emerge because we [forget] that resting does not mean disappearing.”
Some of us -- mainly those of us without small children at home -- may feel we’ve already had our shmita year. No commute. No busy social calendar. We woke up early for meditation with Rabbi Buchdahl. We made pickles with Rabbi Lorge. We were home to see our challah rise! Before your calendars fill up again, ask yourselves: “What grew in the empty spaces? And which of those things will you continue to cultivate this year?
Others found themselves over-employed. We were tethered to Zoom while caring for children who were feeling anxious, isolated, and depressed. You may be sitting here asking: “What about the grants that didn’t get written, the jobs I couldn’t apply for?” Thinking, “Is this really the year for doing nothing?” Yes. Our tradition tells us that in the face of the exhaustion and depletion we are feeling right now, a year of doing nothing is exactly what we need.
In her book “How to Do Nothing,” the artist Jenny Odell offers us a roadmap “for resisting what she calls the attention economy -- the ubiquitous sense in our modern lives that we must always be doing, producing, and responding. She advocates for replacing FOMO -- the fear of missing out -- with NOMO -- the necessity of missing out. She teaches that access to time and space in which to do nothing is necessary for us to think, reflect, heal and sustain ourselves and the world around us.6
To be clear, this is not a life-hack. As Odell writes, “The point of doing nothing isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.” Think of someone you love who has retired. Did they become less worthy because they are less productive? No. And you won’t either.
Making a commitment to do nothing does not mean abandoning our commitment to repair the world. But at a time when so much suffering is caused by thoughtless and reactionary responses to the latest media cycle, silence can be an act of resistance.
When you leave here today, I invite you to look at your calendars, and find at least one slot that you will allow to lie fallow. An hour on Monday mornings, or 15 minutes each night after the kids are in bed. Promise yourself that you will not use that space for anything productive. Just allow that piece of your life to rest and see what takes root of its own accord.
If you have children, give them some time back, too. As Dr. Betsy Stone suggests, too often, we try to control every outcome for our children. Observing shmita means getting out of the way. It means pausing, releasing our grip on the future, and asking ourselves, “What if I just sat and didn’t do anything? Who might they become?”
Do you need a more active way to do nothing? Take a walk. But if you do, promise you’ll leave your Fitbit behind. And no catching up on a podcast. Instead, allow yourself to daydream. Look with soft fascination at the world around you, and see what reveals itself.7 I will also be creating some opportunities for us to do nothing together. As the rabbi in charge of adult programming, I can’t wait to do nothing with you this year.
They say every rabbi gives the sermon they most need to hear, and that is certainly true for me. Every once in a while, someone will ask “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten.” And my go-to is always something I learned from my friend John. After we graduated law school, I saw John go from one high-powered job to another. One day I asked him, “How do you keep getting all these jobs?” And he said, “If someone asks you if you can do something, just say yes. By the time you need to do it, you can figure it out.”
I tried it. And sure enough, it works. For years, I have approached opportunities with a default answer of “Yes.” The good news is that I’ve done things that I never would have gotten to do if I’d said no. The bad news is that it’s exhausting. It turns out non-stop productivity is no better for the soul than it is for the land. I’m not prepared to ditch John’s advice forever. I think it’s really good, at least 6 years out of 7. But maybe this is the year for saying no. What if the default answer to every seventh invitation or opportunity was “no,” just for this year? What might that make room for?
I imagine that some of you are thinking, “Rabbi, the last thing I need is more quiet.” If your calendar has grown too empty this year -- if you’re feeling isolated and stagnant -- remember that part of the shmita year is about feeling free to explore. So go out there and be curious. There is a term in Hebrew for learning that is not done with a practical aim in mind. It is called Torah lishmah. Learning for its own sake. So read a book that will not come in handy. Take up a hobby that is useless, but delightful. Extra points if you are bad at it.
If we can embrace this year of release, then when we meet again next September, we might find that the world has survived without our extra busy-ness. We might also find that we are satisfied. For that is God’s promise when God decrees the Sabbatical Year. If we can stop working so hard, we just might find that what we need to sustain us is already here. All we need to do is to slow down enough to discover it.
2 Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melakhim 11:1
3 Deuteronomy 8:7-9
4 Deuteronomy 8:14-17
5 Thanks to Rabbi Jeremy Bernstein for this insight. Jeremy Bernstein, “Stop the Machine,” Jerusalem Report, May 21, 2001 (quoted in Hazon, Shmita Sourcebook (2013), p. 67).
6 P. 22
7 The idea of “soft fascination” comes from a school of psychologists following William James. It is discussed in Annie Murphy Paul’s wonderful book, The Extended Mind.