by Yigal Deutscher
The tribes of Israel have just gathered together, am echad b’lev echad, one nation with one synchronized heart, in alignment and in unity. They have just stood, in deep humility, in awe, in trepidation, witnessing and receiving a divine gift.
They have emerged from the brokenness of slavery; they have traveled through the wilderness for 50 days, only to stand together in this moment, before a mountain covered in fire, topped with thundering clouds, shimmering with lightning, rippling with the sounds of the Shofar. 1o utterances have emerged from the heart of creation; 10 utterances so clear and powerful that the tribes could actually see & feel each of them, as they echoed from the mountain, from the sky, from the ground and rock and sand below their feet, and from within their own beating hearts.
And now, just as these sounds have settled, a distillation, a clarification begins, transforming these 10 potent seeds of transformation into actual, tangible points of comprehension. This needs to happen for Moshe’s sake, before he can continue his personal journey of initiation into leadership. This needs to happen for the tribes of Israel’s sake, so they can digest and translate what they have just experienced into something they can embody in their own, personal waking life.
And that is why, just after such a majestic recollection of the Aseret Ha’Dibrot (1o Utterances), and just before Moshe’s ascension towards Har Sinai for 40 days & nights, we gather together this Shabbat to read Mishpatim, which, at first glance, is simply a set of laws. There are many of them, including laws of how we should treat family, how we should treat servants, how we should treat property, how we should treat livestock, how we should treat acts of violence, how we should treat one another in court and in legal matters.
The divine veil has just parted; the tribes of Israel have just glimpsed with their own eyes and heard with their own ears what this is like. And what follows is a total focus and meditation on the social fabric of our reality. The common bond linking all these laws into one continual tapestry is the theme of relationships: relationships between man & woman, between a person & community, between a person & the wild. In this sense, the ultimate relationship, Bein Adam L’Makom (Between Human & Spirit), which we drank from at Har Sinai, is actually a massive container for all the interpersonal relationships we have within our own social ecology (self, community, nature).
And within this spectrum of laws comes the first appearance in the Torah of something known as Shmita, referred to here as Shvi’it, which simply means ‘The Seventh.” Here is the verse: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield. But in the seventh year, you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave, let the wild beasts eat of it. You shall do the same with your vineyards and olive groves.”
What I want to really ask is, why here? Why introduce Shmita right now, at this exact point in the Torah? Interestingly, the sentences which introduce Shmita come right at the end of the listing of social laws (almost as the culmination of social practices), and right at the start of the listing of spiritual cycles (Shmita, Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot). In this sense, the idea of leaving land fallow every seventh year literally becomes the bridge between social laws in the Torah & spiritual laws in the Torah. This is the ultimate edge of connection, a merging point such as where the ocean meets the shore. (And if you know about Permaculture, you’ll know that the edge, the meeting place, is the most vital places in natural ecologies, rich and ripe with diversity, with life, with abundant possibility).
So what’s the deal? To fully understand Shmita and its deepest implications (even considering the further details of Shmita as listed in Vayikra 25.1-7 & Devarim 15.1-11), we have to realize that this is not just a practice about sustainable farming, about soil preservation, about land management, about local food systems, about celebrating the commons, about debt release and economic security. Yes, these are all layers which are of crucial importance to the Shmita paradigm, but they are still secondary layers. When we peel this back one more layer, we get to the heart of Shmita: this is about healthy culture, healthy relationships. The farming is just the canvas upon which these relationships can unfold. As Masanobu Fukuoka wrote in the One Straw Revolution, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
In this way, the Seventh year period of leaving land fallow is just one piece of a larger puzzle, which ideally celebrates an intentional farming system/social system/economic system that begins already on day 1, in year 1 of the cycle, and continues each and every day into the Seventh year. The only way Shmita can be upheld, prepared for, celebrated is by continually cultivating relationships of respect, trust, compassion and honor.
Later on in this parsha, after all these laws have been listed, Moshe calls the tribes to attention and opens from Sefer Habrit, the Scroll of the Covenant/Scroll of the Sacred Bond. He reads to the people, awaiting a confirmation, a commitment, a response of yes, we are ready to accept this upon ourselves. The Midrash asks: What was it that Moshe specifically read to the people at this moment? According to Rabbi Yishmael, the answer given is this: “Six years you shall sow your field…but in the Seventh Year the land shall have a complete rest. (Shemot 23.10-11)”
The tribes of Israel are venturing from slavery towards home, towards a place to set down their own roots, as a nation, as a culture. The lifestyle they will be entering into will be an agrarian one. This will be the first time they will have an opportunity to cultivate, to till, to tend. Until this point they have been first shepherds, then slaves, now wanderers. In anticipation of this evolution and transformation, Moshe has taken a moment to get very clear…If you are going to accept the Torah upon yourselves, if you are going to enter into an intimate bond with a particular land, if you are going to be stepping into this story for all your children for the generations ahead, it first comes down to this single point: Are you ready to step into the rhythm and cycle of Shmita? When you enter the land, and begin to engage with farming, with production, with property, are you willing to peel back the layers of pressure and comfort to focus on the sacred relationships within farming, the relationships that are the foundation to culture itself, between people & land, between people & plants, between land owners & workers, between rich & poor, between the cultivated & the wild, between the individual & the community?
As the Midrash continues, the tribes of Israel responded, “We accept!” When Moshe saw that they had received it upon themselves, he said: “Behold, you are prepared.” (Mechilta, Parshat Yitro 3). And it is only at that moment, once the people have fully accepted this, that Moshe turns away and begins to ascend the mountain, before he disappears into the midst of the cloud at its peak.
Yigal Deutscher is Manager of the Shmita Project at Hazon. He is also the founder of 7Seeds, an educational platform rooted in Hebrew Mythology and Permaculture Design Strategies. For more info, visit 7seedsproject.org