With friendly permission of my dear friend and Rabbi Elisha
29. Elul 5781
This evening we begin a new year!
It feels so exciting and festive to write those words!
This isn’t just any new year, but the Jewish Year of the Gatherers!
The Chinese have the Year of the Rat, the Rabbit, the Pig… and we have the Year of the Gatherers.
The more commonly used name for this year is “Shnat Shmitta.”
The Year of the Gatherers – or Shmitta, if you insist – happens every seven years. In that year, farmers let their land lie fallow, and all of the produce of the trees and fields is considered “hefker”, meaning without an owner. Anyone who wants to may come and gather, as may the land’s owner. He may gather and eat all he wants, but he may not sell his produce nor work his land.
But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (Vayikra 25:4)
I know some of my readers are farmers, and for them the Shmitta year is very significant and challenging, despite the famous “heiter mechirah” (an arrangement by which the land may be sold for one year to a non-Jew, created right here, in Zichron Yaakov, by Rav Kook!).
However, most of us are no longer farmers, and the Shmitta year has less effect on our lives. Perhaps the cost of fruit and vegetables will go up and its quality down, having been grown in Turkey or Gaza, but other than that, the year might go unnoticed.
And that’s a shame, because it is worth really experiencing the Year of the Gatherers. The ancient Israelite idea of Shmitta is an ingenious one. Even for those who are not farmers, it can be a very significant and fruitful one (pun intended).
During the Shmitta year, we are required to release our hold; to recognize that the land does not truly belong to us. We are guests – guests of honor, but guests nonetheless – not the owners. Shmitta is a kind of T’shuva, and T’shuva comes from the word “lashuv”, to return. We return to the era of gatherers, the lifestyle that existed before the agricultural revolution, during which humans learned to tame plants and settle on the land. The gatherers were wanderers, just like any other animal, and they collected their food as they went. They did not hold onto land or become enslaved to it.
The need to hold onto our possessions, to people, to life itself – these are a tremendous weight we choose to bear. And that’s fine, it’s the way we are. But once in seven years we have the opportunity to do T’shuva and release at least some of what we normally hold onto.
Not everything needs to be released. It’s not possible, in any case. But we have an entire year – beginning tonight – to notice or be mindful of the things we hold onto, and consider whether we are ready to let them go. And also accept the things we are not ready to let go of, because this is not something which can be forced.
The process of letting go requires knowing how to trust and rely, and we find this very difficult. The human brain is not wired to trust. Our brain is miraculous; the pinnacle of Creation, but it is programmed for one thing only – for survival. And survival and Shmitta are complete opposites (which is, in itself, an indication of how interesting the process of Shmitta is!). The gatherers, for example, believed that nature would supply their needs. But then came the miraculous human brain that thought otherwise. Afterall, who can promise us that tomorrow we will once again find fruit in the forest? And so agriculture was born. The first farmers were gatherers who learned how to domesticate plants in order to secure the future. In the same way, hunters became shepherds, because why would one hunt if animals can be raised in the comfort of one’s own home, and then slaughtered as needed?
In this way, man went from being an integral part of the natural world, to controlling it. From being a guest, to being the landlord. Or at least, so he thought.
This process is reflected beautifully in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain, the first farmer, who clung zealously to his land, and Abel, the first shepherd. This clinging was actually the beginning of human civilization, and we know how the story of Cain and Abel ended… Survival led to holding on, which led to the first murder. According to the Midrash, Abel’s herd grazed on the land that “belonged” to Cain. Cain demanded that Abel get them off “his” land, and then Abel demanded that Cain take off the sweater made of wool and the clothes made of leather from “his” sheep.
And now back to us.
Those of us who are not farmers: how can we mark this Year of the Gatherers? What are we being asked to do and who are we being asked to rely on? How can we overcome our brains’ natural tendency to cling so as to survive?
I’m giving you due warning, it’s difficult! Oh, and subversive! It requires a reversal, so to speak, of our evolutionary journey. But it is only for one year, no more! In other words, it’s a small leap backwards in order to make a huge leap forward.
We can begin with the deep understanding that an amazing intelligence lies within everything. Reality is essentially healthy and as it should be, and that it doesn’t need us. If anything, we are the ones in need of reality, and not vice versa. Nature does just fine without us, without our interference and our clinging. We witnessed this fact at the beginning of the Covid epidemic, when everyone stopped travelling and stayed home for the first time in years. Nature immediately began to rehabilitate itself. It was just waiting patiently for the opportunity to rejuvenate itself.
This process is one that we can rely on!
Parenthood is a wonderful example. That too is a kind of agriculture. I am learning the hard way, for instance, that my son requires mostly nourishment and love from me. He very much wants me to trust him, to trust his natural essence. I admit that while it is very easy for me to love him, it is not always easy for me to trust him, and even more difficult to release my concerned hold on him…
Which brings me to the next thing: clinging on to particular outcomes. It is natural that we should wish to achieve certain results in our lives. But can we let go of having to achieve these particular results? I’m not suggesting passivity and idleness. On the contrary! We should recognize our will and respect it. It, too, is part of our nature. We may put effort into and strive for our desired outcomes, but not cling to them. Let us recall, again, that there is an intelligence greater than ourselves. Who knows, perhaps we will be pleasantly surprised. And when we release our hold on the particular results, life’s energy is freed up to manifest itself fully.
This is true in education as well. We can and should invest in education, direction, advice, and certainly set boundaries. But the destiny of another human being – our child’s or otherwise – is not in our hands! Our role is mainly to nourish and love.
This year is the Year of the Gatherers. An entire year to consider the grip we have on various dimensions of our lives. A year in which we replace survival with belief, clinging with love, control with observation, and expectation of outcomes with great wonder and awe. A year in which our amazing brain – the one responsible for our survival up to now – may open to new expanses.
May it be a year in which we allow nature, the universe, and God to surprise us favorably.