Embracing the Shmita Cycle: A New Year Vision


For what many of us happens to be a subconscious pattern, at every single moment our bodies are set to move with an internal rhythm, a frequency of flow. It is so obvious, so integral, and so taken for granted that it is most likely not something we pay that much attention to. This rhythm is breath, and without this beat, there is no life in the bodies we reside in. The beautiful thing about this simple and subtle, often forgotten, internal movement is that when you pay it some attention, it can take on the force of powerful winds, of strong waves. It creates its own gravity and momentum, each movement taking on an exaggerated expression. Each inhale lifts your lungs and belly, inflating what now feels like elastic skin. Each exhale becomes a gratifying release and surrender, an emptying of something you never knew could ever be so full.
And with this focused attention on our breath, there is an opening, a realization. Time itself expands when we sink into this flow. Between each inhale and exhale, there is a moment; a period of stillness, of quiet, of calm, of rest. This moment is a passageway, a portal into timelessness itself. This is the fine edge where inhale and exhale meet; where end and beginning meet; where past and future, return and renewal, merge together in balanced harmony. It is in this place where the flow of time returns into itself, completing one cycle, like the mouth of a serpent meeting its own tail, and spiraling onwards.
The fabric of the entire Jewish cosmology, culture, and story is interwoven with the patterns of these cycles. These cycles create our collective, evolving body. Not just the human body, but the body of Earth, of life itself. We mark time with these movements of transformation, with this cyclical dance. Look above, at the luminous gemstone nested in our inky oceans of night, where this flow of breath slows down over a month’s time. We watch her body wax and wane, her belly swell and diminish. At the start of every month, we celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon. But before that delicate tiny sliver of a new moon is revealed, once again renewing her cycle, we recognize the month’s molad, her birth. And this birth occurs at the dark moon, the invisible moon; the moment between the new month and the old, when the inky ocean of night has completely swallowed and washed over our moon. It is this moment which is the same as the cycles of our own rhythmic breath, our beating heartbeat and flowing pulse…that cyclical moment in between the action, that moment of total stillness.
Rosh Hashana is our glorified Rosh Chodesh. In the new moon of Tishrei, we are invited not just to reflect on the passing of a monthly period, but the passing on an entire lunar calendar, an entire year. And the invitation is just the same in forward motion; to envision not simply for the month ahead, but for the many moons that follow. Our tradition which empowers us in this process, grounding us with intention and devotion, is a practice we call Teshuva, Return. In order to step forward, to sow the seeds of vision and hope for what lies ahead, we must first ‘return.’
The invitation is to return, to surrender, to come home and sink in to this moment of timelessness, this empty space of stillness. If we are able to return to this place, and settle in, for just a moment, we will meet the womb of unity, the seed of Shalom, the birthplace of Eden, the heart of creation, the sacred center. We are invited to drink deeply from this flowing wellspring, to hydrate and nourish our bodies and spirit for the journey ahead.
On this particular Rosh Hashana, while invoking the year 5773, as you drink from this wellspring, you are invited to recall another cycle, a cycle as old as the Jewish story itself, a cycle unfolding in the undercurrents of our collective memory and subconscious. We are now welcoming in year 5 of a seven-year cycle known as the Shmita Cycle. If our weekly Shabbat is a 24 hour period of stillness, then Shmita, the Shabbat of the Land, is a year-long period of stillness.
Shmita, literally translated as the ‘year of release’, and more widely known as the Sabbatical Year, is the focal point of Jewish earth-based traditions. Two years from now, on Rosh Hashana 5775 (which will be 2014), the cycle will once again enter into it’s 7th year, and the Shmita period will begin anew. And this is when things will get quite interesting.
Many may recall the year of Shmita simply as the time ‘when we leave all agricultural land fallow.’ Ok, but can we take a moment to dwell on what it might mean to actually ‘leave land fallow’? And might we realize just how radical and audacious that sounds? As an equivalent, since most of us are not farmers in this age, imagine saying, ‘a year when we close every single shopping mall and bank’ (which happens to not be that far off from what the Shmita period does in fact imply). How does that sound to you?
In actuality, the Shmita year has a depth that reaches into every aspect of society and culture. This is only an ‘agricultural’ year in the sense that it directly involves food and land. And that affects all of us, not just farmers. If we were really celebrating this tradition, here is how it would look: One year out of seven, your community is asked to collectively participate in a cultural shift. There will be no seeding in the soil, there will be no tilling of the soil, private land holdings will be open to the commons, everyone will have equal access to food storage and perennial harvests, foods cannot be sold in the marketplace, and all debts will be forgiven. Everyone will share in widespread abundance, as resources are redistributed, shared equally.
Let me re-phrase: this is a complete restructuring of economic systems, food systems and community systems. This is a paradigm transition from global to local, from profit to wellness, from the realm of the private to the realm of the communal, from short term thinking to long term visioning.
How’s that for a shift? Have you ever experienced the chaotic few hours before Shabbat arrives…wrapping up the work week, preparing food, cleaning clothing, body & house? Well, can you imagine society and its dominating factors of agribusiness, real estate, banking, and politics trying to calmly welcome in this year, a time that boldly and directly defies and challenges every notion of the economic marketplace definition of success, profit and value? How might we possibly herald in the arrival of the Shmita year without also avoiding total systematic collapse of our modern economic structures?
And here lies the riddle of the Shmita cycle…and every cycle, for that matter. As the Sefer Yetzirah, Book of Formation (one of the earliest texts of Kabbalah) offers, in a way that many spiritual traditions from diverse cultures share, “The end of a thing is in its beginning; and its beginning is in its end.” The strength of any cycle is in that moment of stillness, or, let me say it in another way: It is that moment of stillness which defines the cycle. It is the moment of inactivity which defines all activity. How we rest shapes our work. How we sit with no breath marks our breathing. How we celebrate the new moon marks the entire moon cycle. That sacred moment of stillness is not there simply as a resting ground, or as a recharge for the activity ahead. No, it is a beacon, a North Star, a guiding light. It is an anchor and tap root. It is a wellspring, infusing and overflowing into all moments surrounding it.
So taken on its own, Shmita is a riddle with no answer. In order to begin to understand the intricate puzzle that is Shmita, we must first connect the six years to the 7th, the parts to the whole. Shmita is more than an isolated year; it is primarily a way of being, a blueprint for a sacred, whole-systems culture, one grounded in vibrant, healthy and diverse relations between sacred community, ecology, economy & spirit. The 6 years of the Shmita cycle are those of cultural design. Shmita itself is simply the indicator year, the ultimate ‘check-in’ to see how we are collectively doing as a culture. To start to reclaim Shmita is not simply to mark our calendars. It is genuinely to begin a journey which will call for a complete reshaping of society. It is to begin a dynamic process which will take years, and it will not be simple or easy. But the process is what we are working towards, as well as the destination.
This might be much to swallow. And that is understandable. It has been many generations, many cycles of sevens, since we can collectively say we have celebrated this tradition. We have journeyed very far from this gift. Shmita is by no means at the forefront of our collective consciousness or cultural priority list. It does not define Jewish life as rituals like Shabbat or Yom Kippur or Passover may. When Shmita is recalled, it is usually referred to as an archaic notion or simply brought up as romantic idealism. To be fair, traditionally this custom was meant for the land of Israel alone. And after thousands of years of a Jewish faith developing while separate from the land of its origins, Shmita has been somewhat lost to us.
Yet, here, in all its bluntness, is one comment to consider, offered to us by our ancestors, tucked away in the 5th chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). “Exile comes into the world…on account of not keeping the Shmita of the Land.” Exile. Really let that word sink in, in all its potency. Exile! The idea of exile goes beyond the simple notion of being disconnected from a particular land. It implies a broken state of being, a broken set of relationships. It implies doubt and disempowerment. It implies isolation and separation. It implies an exaggerated sense of ego. Ultimately, what I’d like to offer is that exile is living within a state of fear, and the many drastic expressions of exile we experience are all symptoms of this root cause. This fear pulls us away from flowing in harmony with the natural cycles of being, from residing in that sacred center, in that sacred breath, in that sacred point where two moments meet in total stillness and timelessness. And this is the ultimate home we are longing for.
Let’s be honest. In this beautiful world we live in, we are now finding ourselves surrounded by severe economic collapse, environmental degradation, radical inequality, and the dissolving of community culture. These are partly the products of our own collective doings, and perhaps, it is time to admit, the consequences of a misguided societal model. The veil has parted, and many of us have peeked through to the other side. So now we have a simple choice ahead of us. We can carry on, trying to solve these problems with the same patterns that created them (Albert Einstein might have said this is a sign of collective insanity, if he were still around). Or we can shift our perspective and try something different, guided by the wellspring of ancestral wisdom. As we begin to re-imagine the Shmita cycle, these are the questions to ask: What would a culture look like if it actually did prepare itself to fully celebrate this year? What would their food systems look like? How would their economic systems function? How would their communities be organized?
If exile is the story of fear and isolation, Shmita is the story of trust, of faith, of community, of resiliency. It is a humbling process, which strips us completely of the illusion of security which we hope comes along with monetary wealth, property holdings, and market control. As we remove these notions, vulnerability will surely rise to the surface. Rather than attempt to control these feelings, to suppress and pacify them, let us embrace these feelings, dive into them, trust them. It is here that we will find the seed of transformation and the rich, fertile grounds in which to plant them.
Shmita is an invitation for us to turn from perceived scarcity towards revealed abundance. Once we can finally open in trust, to each other, to process, then we have found the antidote to fear, and we are on our way home. Our breath returns to us, and along with it, we drink from that expansive flow of stillness and calmness between inhale and exhale, the headwaters of vision and clarity. And it is from this place that we may reclaim our collective gifts, our humble place within the ecology of all beings, our intimacy with self & Spirit, our ability as holistic designers and cultural architects. And we may begin reconnecting the threads that have been broken, reweaving the relational webs, the pathways between us, a tapestry of shared stories, visions, and care. Because as much as this journey begins with you, your dream, and your choices, it is a journey that depends entirely on community, on walking together, as a living social ecology, in mutual support, in beautiful humility, with courageous hope and faith, to enter again into the rhythm of this cycle, welcoming and honoring the total mystery that awaits.
In the breath of cycles, the time of stillness is also a time to simply observe, to watch the patterns around us, within us, to heal what no longer serves us, to take notice of how we may proceed in the cycle ahead, harvest inspiration and plant seeds of evolution. So on this Rosh Hashana, at the birth of a new year, here are some seeds to sow, looking towards a renewal of the Shmita tradition:
Design for perennial, local food systems. Return food production to your own backyard and community commons. Share in the efforts of planting and harvesting. Support community farms. Save seeds. Plant fruit trees. Come together for home drying, canning and fermentation. Support respectful, healthy animal husbandry. Cultivate awareness of wild edibles and medicinals. Gather to cook and feast together, share recipes and the stories of the foods you are eating. Offer gratitude. Enter into relationship with the wild lands closest to you. Know your watershed.
Design for local, homegrown economies based on mutual exchange and the priceless interactions of friends and family. Create community co-ops and economic commons. Create a time bank. Exchange and share resources. Reduce consumption. Redefine value. Create patterns of creative re-use and retrofitting. Experiment with gift giving. Invest in community businesses and local visions. Purchase items communally. Share information with open source technologies. Keep money with local community banks. Create a communal financial fund.
Design for empowered community networks based on shared visions and shared stories. Educate one another. Create community mentoring circles. Support one another in work projects. Celebrate the skills of the hands as much as the intellect. Entertain one another with community art and music. Learn to make decisions together, to process together. Honor children and elders as integral wisdom-carriers. Come together for healing, nourishment and care. Gather together for celebration, grieving, ceremony, ritual, blessings. Celebrate the seasons, cycles of time and rites of passage.
Ultimately, to return from a sense of exile, we first must be able to envision a home to return to; a home not just for ourselves, but for all peoples and for the many generations ahead; a home whose foundation is humility, generosity, hope, beauty, compassion and love; a home whose root is deep within the rhythm of the dynamic cycles we exist within, and the calmness and stillness flowing from their center.
It is comforting to know that the designs called for, and the tools to support them, are mostly common-sense, or native-sense. The solutions are not loaded with science or technology, impossible mathematical formulas or unreachable budgets. They come from within us, and they take root in grassroots community efforts, on our streets, in our homes, in our synagogues, in our schools, in our community commons. This is a groundswell, from the bottom up, a spring breaking free from the earth and flowing freely. It is time to take responsibility of choice and realize how much power we actually have. And beyond that, there is only trust. And that is fine. We never control the outcome anyways, so we may as well wean ourselves from that illusion. The only thing we can genuinely offer is to feed the process with beautiful, glorious effort. We have not danced with this cycle before, at least not in our lifetime, or in the lifetime of any of our recent ancestors. Yet, as we reclaim our native senses, we will remember. We have done this before. And that memory is still flowing within our DNA.
In this sacred space, where ancient traditions and emerging visions meet, in loving embrace, we are starting to reclaim what we have forgotten but have not lost. We are now at the edge of a global transformation. As much as the systems we have known in our lifetime seem to be crumbling all around us, there is also something else to consider: “there is now a river flowing very fast…and know this river has a destination” (as the Hopi elders have told us). More and more people all over the world are pushing off from the shores of unstable grounds, jumping into this flow, reaching towards evolution, change, transformation, reaching towards a momentum of optimism and positive creativity.
And within these transformative times, Judaism itself is rapidly evolving. It has now been almost 65 years since we, as a people, have returned to the land of our origins, the stories of our indigenous past. It has been as messy as it can get at times, but what is certain is that the Jewish people’s renewed presence in this particular place has opened up completely new ways of connecting with ancient pathways. The Jewish voice, grounded in Torah, is becoming a powerful addition in the movements of environmentalism, social justice, organic farming, community organizing, alternative economies and politics, healthy sexuality and gender relations, artistic expression, embodied spirituality, and more. It is becoming harder to box anyone in with a simple label of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal, etc, etc, etc. This is being replaced with a transcended sense of educated choice and empowered experience and self experimentation, creatively framing and defining personal relationships to spirit, history and tradition. And with all this change, there is a gravity of attraction forming, pulling us together to find the common ground, and to celebrate our own shared, integrated diversity.
Two years from this Rosh Hashana, we will again have an opportunity to dip into the waters of Shmita, to meet our own reflection in her stillness, in her timelessness. How will you meet this moment? In scarcity or abundance? Alone or with community? However you choose your journey, know this: we are nearing a ripe moment. For the first time in thousands of years, there is a possibility of a collective Jewish consciousness, in Israel, North America and beyond, fully entering into the rhythm of this Shmita cycle, and journeying with her, from year 1 to year 7, fully envisioning and laying the seeds for a Sabbatical culture. Shmita is inviting us home, to return, to embrace this cycle in all her abundant possibilities. To tell again, and live again, a story so old and ancient we have forgotten how much we need it today, for our own survival, for our own growth. This is the Jewish wisdom tradition, the Jewish mystery tradition, and it is our gift to offer the world. Shmita has been dormant for thousands of years. In its rebirth it will look different, it will feel different. It will be whatever we will make of it. The age of Shmita is upon us, waiting to be invited in. You are welcome to join the journey.
Yigal Deutscher is the founder of 7Seeds, an educational project envisioning a renewal of the Shmita Cycle, grounded in Hebrew mythology and Permaculture Design strategies. He recently began contributing to Tikkun Daily. For more info, visit 7seedsproject.org
Yigal is also the Educational Coordinator for the Shmita Project, a new platform to support this movement, created in partnership by Hazon, 7Seeds, and the Jewish Farm School. For more info, visit hazon.org/resource/shmita-project/

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