(Originally posted on May 18)
[This essay appears in an abbreviated form in the column “The People and the Book” of the Jerusalem Report for May 20, 2017.]
Tacitus, Roman senator and historian, wasn’t such a great judge of character. Writing about Jews after the Great Revolt and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, he complains that “such is their natural propensity to sloth that, in consequence of it, every seventh year is devoted to repose and sluggish inactivity.” (Histories, 5:4).”
If anything, our nation of startups and upstarts suffers more from restless energy, then as now. Tacitus also misunderstands the concept of Shmittah, the Sabbatical year, featured in this week’s Torah portion. Ideally, with extensive social organization, Shmittah makes possible an Eden-like existence, sharing food from the Land, as outlined by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in the introduction to his 1909 work Shabbat HaAretz. This is the purpose of the Otzar Beit Din approach to observing Shevi’it, organizing the proper gathering and fair distribution of food under the guidance of the Jewish Court – and it takes work.
But we come not to bury Tacitus nor to praise him, rather to understand the meaning of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and how their apparent inactivity helps cultivate a highly active moral and spiritual sensitivity urgently needed in today’s suffering world.
According to Rabbi Yaakov Leiner of Izhbitza, the term Shmittah, literally meaning release, referring to the Sabbatical release of loans, also guides us to the inner meaning of the mitzvah. After six years of field labor, or any work relying on our own powers, the “release” during the seventh year means “to deliver this power to God, to recognize that without God there is no existence in all our activities.” After seven times seven years of expanding this awareness, the fiftieth Jubilee year brings a deeper letting-go: “to recognize that even this will” to appreciate all that is already done for us “comes from God.” (Beit Yaakov, Behar, 16)
May Rabbi Leiner forgive me for illustrating this with a moment from a Van Morrison concert. In a live performance of “Cypress Avenue” recorded on their album “It’s Too Late to Stop Now,” as the band is really rocking, suddenly there’s a series of drawn-out silences punctuated with bursts of sound from the band. Then… another silence. A long silence. After a while, you hear one of the audience members shout, “Turn it on!” To which Van Morrison replies, softly, “It’s turned on already.” This is what Derrida would call “music under erasure.” In the ensuing silence we come to hear what’s always, already on.
Rabbi Yitzhak in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, from the third century C.E., gives a parable to convey a similar awareness that led Avraham Avinu to realizing the existence of God:
It’s like someone who was traveling from place to place and saw a palace lit up. He said ‘Could it be that this palace has no owner?’ The palace owner glanced back and said ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ Similarly, since Abraham said ‘Could it be that this world has no owner’, God looked at him and said ‘I am the owner of the world (39:1).’
Avraham realized that the world is on.
The fact is, we find ourselves in this world, a gift to ourselves. We’ve done nothing to bring ourselves here. And we don’t have to do much to stay here – just breathe, eat, drink, and watch where we walk. We’re held in place, buoyantly, in a world that is already happening. And we are a gift to each other. Ideally, family, community, society and the planet Earth as a whole provide an embracing context for mutual support and growth. Temporary restraint from agricultural activity, to trust we’ll be sustained without effort, prompts us to recognize all that is already happening around us and in us to support us. It is this awareness that is expressed by the angels in Isaiah’s vision, who sing “Holy, holy, holy the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory (6:3).” The glory’s on.
It takes a quiet, open, awake state of consciousness to really get this. This is one reason Anne and I, having made Aliyah last summer, have committed ourselves to promoting authentic Jewish meditation in Israel. Meditation is gaining popularity here, partly a result of the exposure young Israelis get to Eastern religions during their de rigueur year in the Far East after military service. But we feel it’s important to cultivate our own Jewish meditation methods, rigorous, expansive, profound, that have been practiced and perfected by Jews for centuries and millennia. We grow best from our own roots, and Jewish meditation methods are attuned to the glory of existence. With quiet minds and open hearts, we can appreciate the precious gift of life and being that we all share together.
It’s this awareness that our world needs so urgently today. Horrific violence, rampant bloodlust, terrorism in the twisted name of religion and hypocritically justified by some who profess support for human rights, bespeaks lack of a sense of the amazing gift of life, of existence that we share. The terrorist, brainwashed with ideological fantasies, who murders others and even him or herself, has lost all sense of being. When we truly and deeply appreciate what a gift we are to ourselves and to each other, how could we want to harm another being?
So, Tacitus, when we Jews kick back on the Sabbatical year, it’s not from sloth and sluggish inactivity. It’s to work hard at awakening consciousness and awakening conscience to heal this suffering world together.