Tomorrow evening is the New Moon of Elul, the time on the Jewish calendar when we begin preparing for Rosh Hashanah, one moon from now. Elul is a time for introspection and for action. We are tasked with doing a חֶשְׁבּוֹן נֶפֶשׁ kheshbon nefesh – a self-inventory to assess the ways in which we have lived up to our goals and ideals, and the ways in which we have missed the mark – and then we are expected to take steps to correct our wrongs and get back on track. This is the mitzvah of תְּשׁוּבָה teshuvah, familiar to many of us. In this way, we enter the New Year with clearer consciences and clearer intentions, ready to face the world anew.
I find a compelling teaching for the coming New Year in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eih. In ancient Israel every seventh year was known as a Shmitah year. Shmitah means “letting go” or “release.” During the Shmitah year all debts were released, and anyone who had been indentured due to their debt was freed (while also being furnished with enough property and funds to rebuild their life.) In addition, fields were released from cultivation, and the land was given a sabbatical rest.
This extraordinary practice allowed the entire society to reset itself under more equitable conditions, and allowed the cultivated lands that supported the society to also revitalize. There is much for us to learn from our ancestors about this practice of combined economic and environmental justice. Can you imagine how our world might be improved if Shmitah was part of our social and ecological covenant today?
During our many centuries in exile the Shmitah year naturally fell out of practice. But when Jews began resettling our ancient homeland in the late 19th century the seven-year cycle was reinstituted, although it is not widely practiced. This coming Rosh Hashanah will mark a new Shmitah year, and many thoughtful Jews are reflecting on how we might take note of this ancient concept.
In addition to doing whatever is in our power to ease the debt burden that is crushing so many in our nation and our world, and to advocating for our earth that it might have the opportunity to renew itself, I have been thinking that there is also a deep spiritual lesson that we can draw from the concept of shmitah: now more than ever, we need to practice letting go.
We have never truly been the masters of our own fates, but during more stable times we could pretend that we were, at least for stretches of time. We could embark on a career, and plan for our future. We could extract resources from our Mother Earth and expand our wealth, and pretend that she could give endlessly. We could elect a new president, and expect a peaceful transition. We could anticipate a vacation, and assume it would happen. We could prepare the WJC High Holy Day services without multiple contingencies!
But our world has been rocked to its very foundations. The pandemic has upended our ability to plan, and to feel safe in so many settings we took for granted only a short while ago. Political instability has riven our democracy and society. And climate catastrophe is rapidly overtaking us, shattering – almost unimaginably – even our ability to trust in the flow of the seasons. We find ourselves living in extremely disorienting and dangerous times. We didn’t want this to be so, nor did most of us expect such a rapid unraveling, but here we are. How in heaven’s name do we move forward?
Before the pandemic hit, I had some exciting plans: we were about to hire a second rabbi, I was planning to take our teens to Israel, and so much more. In a matter of weeks, my plans, like those of so many of us, were scattered like dust. I realized that I had two options. I could rage and fret and feel sorry for myself, or I could…let go.
I was able to let go of my attachment to all of these plans, and with that release came an unexpected gift, a lightness of spirit. With the deep-down acknowledgment that I was not in charge of the future, I found I was free to face it with more grace. I am still making plans, but I am holding them more lightly, and letting them go with more ease. My dark moods come, but I let them pass. I have more attention for the present moment, and for the goodness of being alive. Of course I remain concerned and engaged with the overwhelming challenges that face us, but I feel nourished by life and its countless pleasures, which are still and always with us, unstinting in their bounty. Letting go in this way actually appears to make me more effective in being of help to others.
The Sabbath is founded on these concepts, a weekly reminder to let go. And now we are gifted with an entire sabbatical year in which to keep these ideas in the forefront of our consciousness. I will be exploring this theme in my classes this month – all are welcome to join me the coming four Thursdays, 1-2:15pm on Zoom. You are also invited to a brief Elul teaching from different members of our community on the same Thursday mornings at 9am. And Rabbi Ellen Triebwasser has put together a great list of online Elul offerings by a variety of great teachers that you can access here.
For this year of Shmitah, I invite you to consider the inner practice of letting go.