By Rabbi Natan Margalit
What can we, in our present moment of great environmental, social and economic peril and also enormous and exciting potential, learn from the ancient biblical idea of shmita? With its requirement to let all land lie fallow and all debts be forgiven every seventh year, shmita offers us not just an example of progressive social and ecological legislation, but also an insight into an alternative world-view. Shmita tells us to put limits on our activities because we are not the center of the universe, because we are in relationship to something larger than ourselves. One way to look at this is to say that shmita reminds us that whereas the ethos of our times is to move forward unceasingly, in a more sane and inter-connected world there are rhythms.
No musician, storyteller or athlete could work without rhythm. Notes and rests, words and silence, sprinting and pacing yourself — these create the beauty, drama and endurance of their craft. The natural world confirms that- all life is filled with rhythm: from our heartbeats to the tides to the seasons, the world pulses and dances in a beautiful, complex symphony. Nothing in nature drones on constantly; nothing grows without stopping. In all of creation bigger is not better. Rather, balance, symmetry and inter-relationship are the touchstones of vitality.
But humans are unique. We can choose to ignore rhythm. We can, and do, keep our factories running day and night. We try to fool hens into laying more eggs by keeping their lights on 24 hours at a time. With every new pad, pod and phone we push ourselves into 24/7 connectedness. We have created a culture which is built on the metaphor of a machine impervious to any rhythm other than the drone of production. In the name of progress, convenience, even freedom, but most of all, profits, we have lost the music of life.
Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, who tries to gain power by using magic, but is himself caught up and nearly destroyed by it, our efforts to gain power over our environment have caught us up as well, and imposed deadly mechanical logic on our lives. The famed environmentalist Wendell Berry, in his classic collection, The Gift of Good Land, includes an essay called “A Good Scythe.” In it he compares his experience using a mechanical weed cutter versus a hand scythe to cut grass on his hilly farm. He describes how using the mechanical tool creates a kind of weariness unique to machine work. He explains, “the power scythe, like all motor-driven tools, imposed patterns of endurance that are alien to the body. As long as the motor is running there is a pressure to keep going. You don’t stop to consider or rest or look around. You keep on until the motor stops or the job is finished or you have some kind of trouble. (This explains why the tractor soon evolved headlights, and farmers began doing day-work at night.)
I remember the Israel of the 1970s, when everyone took an afternoon break to go home, eat lunch, socialize or take a nap. The logic of non-stop productivity crowds out the rhythms of life, replacing local community-based economies with anonymous, global labor made to fit like cogs in the machine of industry.
Even in Jewish ritual life we see the influence of machine logic. I always find it interesting and a bit sad that we all use an electric light for the ner tamid, the “eternal light” in our synagogues. The word tamid in the Torah doesn’t mean “eternal” in the sense of unchanging and static. Rather, it means constantly renewed. The original ner tamid was the lamp in the Temple that was lit faithfully and constantly each day. Similarly, we say in the morning liturgy: God renews creation each day: mihadesh b’khol yom tamid ma’aseh b’raisheet. The nerot tamid in our synagogues (even if they are solar powered!) have not escaped the all-pervasive mechanical message which envelops us. We are missing an opportunity to remind ourselves of a different logic.
This is not just an aesthetic issue, although that is a part of it. When we sacrifice rhythm and pattern we denigrate beauty. Philosopher and environmental activist Sandra Lubarsky has written that “. . . the importance of beauty… is fundamental to an appreciation for the created order and our efforts to sustain it.”1 We can see this in industrial agriculture’s preference for the fence-less, unending fields of the Midwestern mono-crops. This may increase their profits, but it is not good, sustainable farming. When we think of pastoral beauty and of sustainable farming we think of the pattern and rhythm of farm animals feeding from field crops which they then fertilize with their manure, wood lots and gardens, barns and farm houses. Industrial food corporations still put these scenes on our food packaging and in advertisements, but that is as far as they go.
Embracing rhythm sounds simple but it is a paradigm shifting thought – it means that there are boundaries on productivity to make room for other values. When we take time out of productivity we can give it back to community, family, civil organizing, reading, culture democracy. Ecologically and theologically, it means that we consider that we are not owners and rulers in the world, but that we are ourselves a part of larger patterns, and we are bound by rhythms that tie us to the rest of life. Shmita teaches us to choose life, beauty, and health over profits.
Natan Margalit was raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. He received rabbinic ordination at The Jerusalem Seminary in 1990 and earned a Ph.D. in Talmud from U.C. Berkeley in 2001. He has taught at Bard College, the Reconstuctionist Rabbinical College and the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Natan is Rabbi of The Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life, in Connecticut and Visiting Rabbi at Congregation Adas Yeshorun in Rockland, Maine. He is President of Organic Torah, Inc. a non-profit organization which fosters holistic thinking about Judaism, environment and society. He lives in Newton, MA with his wife Ilana and their two sons.
1’Toward a Theology of Beauty: Hiddur Mitzvah as an Eco-theological Imperitive,” in Studies in Jewish Civilization: The Mountains Shall Drip Wine: Jews and the Environment. Leonard Greenspoon, ed. P. 73.
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