Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Re-Branding Shemittah - Bereshit 5775

Ladies and gentlemen, we have just begun 5775, which just happens to be a year of shemittah, the sabbatical year in which the Torah commands us not to sow or tend crops in the land of Israel (Lev. 25:1-7), but rather to let the land lie fallow. The Torah does not say this explicitly, but this seventh year of rest, this Shabbat for the land was likely instituted to avoid depleting the soil of its nutrients.

Long before the Jews were metropolitan residents, we were an agricultural people, and we were much more in touch with the land. We grew our own food, and when there was not enough rain or the soil was exhausted, we would starve. And hence the need for the shemittah. (BTW, it’s worth pointing out that the seventh of every unit in Jewish time has significance: the seventh day is Shabbat, the seventh month, Tishrei, contains the cycle of holidays we have just completed, and the seventh year is the shemittah.)

The shemittah made a whole lot of sense to our ancestors. Today, we mostly ignore it; it presents a few halakhic challenges to those who pay close attention to where our food comes from. But for the most part, shemittah flies under the radar of the vast majority of the Jewish world.

One of our tasks as contemporary Jews is to consider how seemingly inapplicable ancient customs and rituals can be re-appropriated for today’s world. Jews have always done this.  That’s how each of the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesah, Shavuot, Sukkot) became associated with key aspects of the Exodus story, and how Rosh Hashanah came to be about the new year, and Shemini Atzeret came to be redefined by Simhat Torah (which is not mentioned in the Torah at all), and so forth.

But shemittah - what on Earth do we do with that? (Heh heh.)

I’ll come back to that in a moment. Meanwhile, a brief note from the Torah:

When God creates the world in the first chapters of Bereshit / Genesis, God offers (in the second Creation story, Gen. 2:4b ff.) the following instruction to the man who has just been fashioned from the dust of the Earth (Gen. 2:15):
וַיִּקַּח ה' אֱ-לֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.
Our responsibility, suggests the Torah, is to take care of God’s Creation, even while we use it for our own benefit. A midrash from Kohelet Rabbah (7:13) expands on this to say: “Beware lest you spoil and destroy My world, for if you will spoil it, there is no one to repair it after you." (Shimon Peres quoted this in Israel’s statement at the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development, and it was repeated at the summit last month by Israel’s current minister of environmental protection, Amir Peretz.)

How should we understand this (“to till it and tend it”) today? That God has given us permission to plant crops, but not to deplete the soil so that it is unusable. That we may raise animals for food (actually only explicitly permitted after the Flood) but not to create huge lagoons of manure that cause tremendous floods of poop, polluting rivers and streams and fields. That God has allowed us to process crude oil from the ground to heat our homes and get us from place to place, but not to the extent that we affect our atmosphere so much that the climate is irreparably changed. (Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas; see the manure lagoons above.)

Is this how we tend Creation?

We also read today about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the fruit of which was forbidden to Adam and Eve, but that they ultimately tasted. The 15th-century Portuguese Torah commentator Don Yitzhaq Abravanel saw this episode as an allegory for indulgence. Everything that the first couple needed was provided in the Garden, and so they were free to contemplate God and holy activities. But by indulging in the forbidden fruit, they chose instead material pursuits, the desire to manipulate the world not only to provide for their own needs, but also to produce many non-essential items, indulging their desires. From this, says Abravanel, only “spiritual death” will ensue.

Abravanel was surely not thinking about the climate in the 15th century. But it is not such a leap to see how what he sees as the human choice to pursue our own physical necessities (i.e. the good) and non-necessities (the evil over-indulgences) has led to an unholy imbalance in Creation. You might say that in the Garden, Adam and Eve lived sustainably, taking from all the available fruit trees only as needed. But once they tasted the forbidden fruit, they became subject to the whims of want, and we have been struggling with how to balance our lifestyles with the unintended consequences of desire and human ingenuity ever since.

There are two essential problems that the Earth is facing. The first is that there are already 7.3 billion people on this planet, and that number grows a wee bit each day. The second is that much of the world wants to live the way that we do in the West - to eat rich foods every day, to drive personal cars, to select from a nearly-limitless pile of wonderful, “essential” merchandise with which to fill our homes and our lives, to travel regularly to distant places for vacations and for work.

And all of these activities have a cost - a cost in energy, in resources. That cost is effectively invisible. And, speaking on a per-individual basis, it is insignificant.

But multiply that cost by seven billion - that is, a seven with nine zeroes after it - and it becomes much more significant. Now not all 7 billion live this way today.  But it is obvious that it would be impossible for everybody on the planet to live according to the American standard. Does it make sense that only those of us who got here first should be allowed to do so?

The results are that, among other things, the average temperature of the planet has risen by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 100 years, and is expected to rise another 2 degrees by the end of this century. Now that may not sound like much, but the effects on worldwide climate - including floods and droughts and other unusual weather events - will be profound.

On a related note, a recent study by the World Wildlife Fund indicated that populations of “mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish around the globe dropped 52 percent” today as compared with 1970, the year I was born. This is a much steeper decline than had been previously supposed.

We have come a long way since Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden. But all the more so, since this shemittah year calls to mind our duty to use our resources wisely and respectfully, to honor God and Creation by giving the land a Shabbat, should we not use this year to commit ourselves more forcefully to changing our current trajectory?

And although there are many ways to consider sustainable use of God’s gift to us, the biggest challenge that we are now facing is global warming. Ladies and gentlemen, the time to act on this was ten years ago.


A few weeks back, my daughter and I attended the Climate March in New York, along with along with Temple Israel Board member Veronica Bisek Lurvey and her son, our Executive Director, Leon Silverberg and his adult daughter, and some 300,000 other concerned Americans. The attendance far exceeded expectations.

It was a tremendous show of support in advance of the UN Climate Summit, at which pledges were made, commitments were given, speeches were delivered. We shall see if the nations that made pledges, particularly the US and the other big polluters, will follow through.

Meanwhile, perhaps we can take this shemittah year to consider wiser use of our resources on a macro level, and on a personal level. I suggest that we consider making a personal shemittah pledge: Use less. Drive less. Buy less. Throw away less.

We have to start small, but we have to be thinking big as well. Very small actions, performed by many, many people, can yield a significant result.  How many grains of sand does it take to make a beach?

But greater than that, perhaps now is the time to exhort our leaders directly for greater action. The United States made a modest pledge at the climate summit, to “bolster resilience efforts” (and frankly, I have no idea what that means).

Not much has changed in the seven years that I have been discussing these issues in this space. Where are the extensive solar arrays (solar panels have come down 50% in price since 2010)? Where are the wind farms? Where is the cap and trade system? We in Great Neck are seeing a few all-electric Teslas on our streets, but where is the all-electric Chevy?

Germany is now producing 30% of its energy from wind, biogas, and the sun. They have spent tens of billions of dollars on this infrastructure, and in 2010 there were 370,000 Germans employed in this sector. Germany pledged last month that by 2020 they would reduce their carbon emissions by 40% over 1990 levels. Why are we not doing this here?

God gave us this earth to till it and to tend it, with all the implications of that statement. And although we opted to leave Gan Eden and pursue the less-spiritual path, we are still bound to the obligation to protect and honor Creation through wise use. Let’s take this shemittah year to rededicate ourselves to personal and global consideration of the Earth, because it’s the only one we have.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 10/18/2014.)


  1. Thank you for this insightful post. It is some I will be sharing with friends and other members of my synagogue.

    1. Thank you, Jon! Shavua tov and shanah tovah!