By Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy
I recently ran, together with my entire family, in the Jerusalem Marathon. Admittedly, I ran merely the five kilometer non-competitive race, but it was a special feeling just the same. It was a chance to run with an amazing mosaic of people including Jews from America, soldiers from across the country, high school kids from Gush Etzion and even Christian pilgrims from Hungary and Italy. More than a dozen Pardes students, teachers, and staff from the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies (where I serve on the faculty) were out running the full marathon, half marathon, 10-K or family run, and it felt like the entire neighborhood was there, too. In fact, throughout the last months of training (yes, I had to train even for the 5-K run), there has been a feeling of camaraderie and excitement on the streets as the number of runners multiplied in preparation. We got strength from each other, and the successes of the day have inspired us to push forward to greater heights.
Without detracting from the value of the marathon (Jerusalem should be home to earthly as well as heavenly pursuits), I find myself imagining what it might have felt like had we been gathering for the hakhel Torah reading ceremony as prescribed in Deuteronomy 31:10-13:
“Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” (NJPS Translation)
Like the marathon, the entire country comes together during hakhel for a common purpose. Men, women and children all participate, each according to their abilities; everyone must be included in the event. However, hakhel is not merely a one time happening but the culmination of the sabbatical year – which is essentially a year of “social training” geared to create deep and meaningful social solidarity from beginning to end.
Deep social solidarity needs to be rooted on multiple levels. Before we can even imagine thinking about our national spiritual needs, we need to take care of our physical needs. That is why seventh year produce is described as “holy.” (P. Sheviit 4:7 (35c), based on Leviticus 25:12) Whereas sanctification normally indicates something circumscribed to a very limited elite (the Temple or the priests), the produce’s sanctity during the sabbatical year is rooted in its availability to all. It can be eaten anywhere in the land of Israel, and by anyone, even the animals: “you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat its yield.” (Leviticus 25:2-7) It may not be hoarded or sold. As the 11th century French rabbinic commentator Rashi explains: “you may not act as owner, rather everyone is equal with respect to it.” (Leviticus 25:6, s.v. v’hayta shabbat ha-aretz) In an overturning of the standard understanding of holiness, sabbatical produce enshrines the holiness of equality.
This egalitarian vision is amplified in other ways as well. Not only is both the land and the produce considered ownerless and available to all, lenders must forgive all debts on the sabbatical year (Deuteronomy 15:1-4). The hierarchy of rich and poor, lenders and debtors, employers and employees, slaves and slave owners is eliminated and a new age of social solidarity is inaugurated.
Once we have worked towards closing economic gaps, we can move forward towards shared culture. The sabbatical year is called Shmita, the year of “release.” This notion of release points beyond economic equality towards a process of spiritual growth. By letting go of our quest to produce, Shmita gives us the opportunity to rest together with our land, thus grounding ourselves, literally and figuratively. We are empowered to direct our thoughts beyond acquiring material wealth. Social solidarity becomes more fundamental than accumulation of wealth, and by consuming less, we become aware of our own excesses. That is why the 11th-12th century Spanish rabbinic commentator Abraham ibn Ezra suggests that the hakhel ceremony is not an isolated event, but is symbolic of what is done all year. (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 108-1164, Deuteronomy 31:12, s.v. ul’ma’an ilmedu, Mehokkei Levi edition) In working less, we enable reflection no less vital to our existence than owning. But again, that release must be available to everyone; Torah learning must be done by one and all as a community: “men, women, children and the strangers in your communities” (Deuteronomy 31:12). Standing together as one for hakhel is the perfect climactic end for the Shmita year.
This coming year (5775) we will be inaugurating another sabbatical year. Of course, we’ll mark it by utilizing technical halakhic loopholes, like the prozbol to avoid forgiving our loans and the heter mechira so we can continue to work our land. But let’s also mark it with a year of building social solidarity on both economic and spiritual/cultural levels. If we could design a hakhel ceremony that does not reflect one isolated morning of messianic aspirations and petty politics, but a process of deep cultural renewal accompanied by expanded economic opportunities for the weak in our society—now that’s a marathon I would really love to participate in.
Dr. Hammer-Kossoy, originally from Washington, D.C., has a B.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University, and a M.A. and Ph.D. from New York University. Her dissertation explored the courageous manner in which the rabbis of the Talmud created a new criminal punishment system.
Dr. Hammer-Kossoy is also a graduate of NATIV, Pardes, Midreshet Lindenbaum, MaTaN, Drisha, and ATID. She has received many fellowships including Lady Davis, National Foundation for Jewish Culture, Memorial Foundation and ATID. Dr. Hammer-Kossoy has also taught at NYU, Drisha and Midreshet Lindenbaum and currently teaches Talmud and the Social Justice Track at Pardes.
Despite having written her dissertation about criminal punishment in the Talmudic period, Meesh is known by her husband and three children as a lover of mercy and kindness.
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