Sabbatical Thoughts: Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780/2019

USDA Rural Development gave a boost to the 2017 Feds Feed Families by leading a gleaning expedition to Miller's Farms in Clinton, Maryland August 25. Thirty USDA employees gathered tomatoes under the leadership of Assistant to the Secretary Anne Hazlett. USDA photo by Steve Thompson.

USDA Rural Development gave a boost to the 2017 Feds Feed Families by leading a gleaning expedition to Miller’s Farms in Clinton, Maryland. Thirty USDA employees gathered tomatoes under the leadership of Assistant to the Secretary Anne Hazlett.

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5780 (Sept 2019).

1-2-3-4-5-6 ( sung 3x), 1-2-3-4-5-6 – rest (sung)

Let’s take a sabbatical
A break from our busy schedule
Let’s take a sabbatical
It means a little rest

1-2-3-4-5-6 (sung 3x),  1-2-3-4-5-6 – rest (sung)

Every seven years, according to the Torah, farmers in Israel are to stop their work and let the land rest. Like the Shabbat itself, it was to be a time of blessing and rejuvenation. It was called sh’nat shabbaton – a year of Sabbath rest, the Sabbatical Year. Similarly, as a rabbi, I came to the Shomrei Board and sang them this song. And, thankfully, I was given some time to rest from my work and have a sabbatical. It was, for me, a once in a lifetime period of blessing and rejuvenation.

Although I already gave a talk at our annual congregational meeting about what my sabbatical was like, I want to speak about it again, not that I want to repeat what I said back then. Except that – again, I wish to thank this wonderful community for giving me the gift of that free time. For that is what it was – a time of freedom for me to be able to pursue lines of inquiry into issues and questions that grip my mind and heart. It was a time when I was free to explore and learn and think and write with uninterrupted focus.

I was privileged to be chosen as the Daniel Jeremy Silver Fellow at Harvard University. It is a research fellowship granted each year to one congregational rabbi. I was fortunate to be chosen for this past year and Shomrei’s gift of a sabbatical leave allowed me to accept that research fellowship and enjoy a semester of intensive study and writing. The subject of my research was the Torah’s command to observe a Sabbatical Year.

So, today, as we begin a new year, I want to share with you some “Sabbatical Thoughts” – that is, both some lessons I have tried to learn from studying this topic, and, also, some thoughts engendered from having had this wonderful personal Sabbatical opportunity.

What can be learned from studying the practices, the explications and the disputes around the Biblical command of the Seventh Year in Jewish thought and history? I am sure that you recall a sermon I gave some five years ago – – right? You know, the one about the Sabbatical Year? It was Rosh Ha-Shanah in 2014 – 5775 – and the start of another Sabbatical Year in Israel. Riiight … that one! I spoke about the meaning of another name for that year – sh’nat ha-sh’mittah – the year of letting go. Remember?

The Torah’s Sabbatical Year message is that we must work to apply utopian concepts and bring them to life in our world. Utopia is not meant to be taken as an impractical fantasy, a myth or a metaphor. It is not something to be dismissed with a hard-headed, world-weary wave of the hand. It is meant to take hold of our reality and change it.

How can this be done? What are the key features of the Torah’s Sabbatical concept?

Here are four basic practices that are central to the Torah’s Sabbatical Plan.

Every seven years, for an entire year, you must:

  • Stop working the land;
  • Open up your private holdings and let other people and other creatures enter to enjoy the earth’s natural bounty;
  • Treat the produce of the land as holy;
  • Let go of collecting debts;

What are the key values that we can extrapolate from these practical commands?

  • We don’t own the land – the very land we hold title to – we don’t own it – God does
  • We must cultivate not only the land, but also our trust in our fellow human beings – allowing them access to what we view as our own, private property;
  • We must cultivate a harmonious relationship with other natural creatures;
  • We must allow the less fortunate –the less lucky and the less privileged – to get additional support and access to resources, and, if need be, to start again;

And finally –

  • We can afford to make this happen;

The Torah goes out of Her way to assure us that this is doable. But, the truth is, the package of demands that makes up the Torah of the Sabbatical Year amounts to a very big ask. When I gave a talk at Harvard about this topic, one Catholic Bible scholar reacted by saying, “Wow! I never realized that anyone actually tries to put these verses into practice!”

Yet this is the glory of the Jewish people’s ancient acceptance of the Torah. When God offered us the Torah, we said, “Na`aseh v’nishmah – we will do and we will obey” – we will actually do these things and not just take them as metaphors. For millennia the Jewish people actively worked to put these lessons into practice instead of only giving these nice, liberal values mere lip service.

I learned in my research that this commitment to make sh’mittah work was difficult to realize. It demanded sacrifice and it called for making hard choices. We had to ask ourselves – were we asking too little or too much of ourselves and our neighbors? How hard can one push people to let go of their personal sense of ownership and sense of self-interest? When would an extra push get us over into a new and better place and when would that push cause a backlash that would endanger the good we had already achieved through so much hard work?

These utopian demands were in force once every seven years. Was that meant as a sensible compromise or as a constant prod? Was it meant to allow us to abandon the ideals of the Sabbatical Year during the other six years, or was sh’mittah to have a cumulative effect over the course of time, periodically reinforcing these ideals, again and again? After the sh’mittah ended, were we to simply return to what was before, or was there meant to be a “new normal” that was better? What, if anything, was supposed to have changed?

The Torah tells us that it is possible to let go of our grip on our private property, the basis of our sense of safety and hope. It tells us that it is possible to live in safety and assurance through a willingness to embrace generous openness. This is the most utopian of claims made by the Torah of the Sabbatical Year. It clashes directly with what has been called “the Tragedy of the Commons.” According to this idea , any asset held in common becomes vulnerable to abuse by the selfish “free rider,” as my economics teacher, Andy Silver called it. The best way to protect resources is to put them into the hands of those who can benefit from protecting them, by putting the world’s stuff into private hands. Is that the only way?

These are not new questions. In my research I learned about the struggle of the Rabbis to implement sh’mittah in the face of this very problem. They sought to be realistic about what was legitimate about such fear and when and how to create policies to overcome it. Today we are riven into two camps, depending on how much we fear the damage done by the “free rider.” But who is the free rider? Conservatives always complain about the “welfare cheats” and low-life’s who exploit the hard work of others and give nothing in return. But I do not believe that the dimensions of that phenomenon – although it sometimes exists – are serious enough to pose a threat to our society. What I learned in my studies was that, given the chance, people are able to successfully organize and monitor themselves and each other to prevent such abuses – if the scale of the community is kept to a manageable level.

The real threat of the “free rider” today is, rather, from the hugely empowered few who despoil the resources of our planet for their own short term gain. These resources include every aspect of our natural world, and they also include the precious resource of human existence itself. Our resources include our very communities, which need to exist on a reasonable human scale. Multinational corporations have so much to contribute to enriching our lives – let alone the coffers of their stakeholders. But, unless there is a counterforce brought to bear, they will grow and expand and roll over any human being and any community that stands in their way. They will continue to exhaust the capacity of this planet to sustain the future – to sustain life itself – unless we insist on the principle of the Sabbatical Year – the year of letting go of our push to grow at all costs, our push to own everything, our push to focus only on what is within our walled-in purview and to ignore the vast world and its creatures that exist outside those walls, the so-called “externalities.”

For centuries the forces of what we call “progress” believed that the infinite resources of the world were out there for the taking. But now we are being forced to face the fact that the resources of this world are finite, and will keep being out there only for the letting go.

For centuries we have believed that the ambitious and the enterprising had the right to take whatever was out there – by virtue of their being ambitious and enterprising. Those who were content to live on less, to conserve the past ways, were dismissed as “primitive,” “lazy,” or as “riffraff.” Their holdings and their way of life were held forfeit to those who had enough drive to take them away. This drive for progress has produced marvels that make us comfortable, and even proud.

But now we are beginning to wake up – not to the marvels achieved by our drive to take and take over – but to the horrors we have inflicted on our fellow humans, on other sentient beings, and on the world itself.

For centuries we believed that costs and benefits could be analyzed within a rational economic model that factored only the forces within the business relationship. If a company could chop down a forest and sell the wood, the cost of the labor and materials was balanced against the profit of the sales. But the damage to the forest, to the creatures who lived in and from that forest, to the world whose future depended on the continued life of that forest – that damage was an “externality,” outside the pure economic equation, to be noticed, or not.

But now we are beginning to wonder whether this internal-external split is a useful – or even a truthful – construct. What if we can no longer afford to set aside the externalities? What if the external has become internal? What if the enemy is really us?

These ideas are still struggling to be heard and taken seriously by the mature and all-knowing public. Unfortunately they have not yet truly captured the majority of the world’s minds. They have certainly not convinced the majority of the powerful players in our time. But the model of the Sabbatical Year has always been a minority viewpoint. The objective question facing the world today is whether we can still follow the majority viewpoint and hope to survive.

These are some of the thoughts I was immersed in as I studied the Sabbatical Year.

And then there are other thoughts that have come to me as I observed my own experience during my sabbatical. My five months of freedom were a time of “freedom to” – I was free to study and grow. But it was also a time of “freedom from” – from certain elements that usually comprise my life. This was a period of detachment – from my home and my job, of course, but, more crucially, from my community and my world of action and effort. For five months I was freed from my minority status as a shul-going, practicing Jew and I joined the majority of the people I live among – relatively comfortable Western, mostly white, mostly secularized citizens of the USA. For five months I learned what it means to live from day to day without a shul, without engagement with a community I could call my own. Yes, I found a place – a few places – where I could go to pray and hear the Torah read. And all around Harvard and beyond there was an overabundance of lectures and concerts and performances and happenings and museums and restaurants, and, and, and. The offerings for me to fill my mind and soul and belly were plentiful. I could construct my life of meaning all by myself. But I did not have a synagogue community in which I could feel part of a larger whole, a collective devoted to goals, ideals and actions that I wanted to be part of.

The unique importance of this minority allegiance strikes me as especially pertinent today:

We are all concerned about the way our society has become polarized and how all issues are now partisan issues. I have tried to address this concern numerous times. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU, has written an influential book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. In it he describes the sharp divide between liberals and conservatives. He argues that psychological studies show that liberals are very strong on the value of “Care” – having concern for others, especially the poor and oppressed. But they lack appreciation for values held dear by conservatives, such as loyalty, respect for authority and the importance of the sacred.

Now you may not know this about me, but I happen to be a fairly liberal fella in most of my positions. Yet I did not recognize myself in Professor Haidt’s analysis of liberals. This is because I am a liberal who also happens to be committed to my religious values. I live everyday seeking to honor the tradition, bowing to its authority and embracing its holiness. It turns out that Haidt’s model has no concept of the possibility of a shul like Shomrei. In fact, since the publication of his book he has admitted to this shortcoming and blind spot.

But my point is not to prove Haidt wrong. It is to hold up for us the amazing and precious accomplishment that Shomrei represents – it refuses to turn a blind eye to oppression and heartlessness at the very same time that it refuses to dismiss the wisdom and sanctity of our tradition.

During my sabbatical I learned how easy it is for most people to live a full life without connecting to a shul. That is why it is the approach of the majority. I keenly felt how much I was in the minority in wishing to be part of a shul. Commitment to a shul is, like commitment to sh’mittah, a decidedly minority phenomenon. Both refuse to succumb to the simple divide we have established for ourselves. Sh’mittah insists that the real challenge is to join both an unstinting concern with the wellbeing of the world with an absolute commitment to serving God, or the Sacred. And a shul, if it really wishes to be anything worthwhile, must aspire to be a utopian space that realizes the Sabbatical vision.

The divide tearing us apart in this country and in the world presents us with a choice. We can persist in our entrenched ways and hold on to our turf and our resentments – or we can learn to let them go. We can adopt the minority path of letting go – sh’mittah – or we will have nothing left to hold on to. Sh’mittah is called “Shabbat la-HaShem – a Sabbatical for God’s sake. For God’s sake! Either we continue to be “realistic” until reality blows up in our faces, or we strive for a new utopia. This is our new reality: We will die out unless we take a Sabbatical.

The clock is ticking – 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6.

Shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Greenstein

Image: “20170825-RD-ST-0029” by USDAgov is licensed under CC PDM 1.0. USDA photo by Steve Thompson.


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