“Our job in this life is, and has always been, to recognize our kinship with the world, to connect with those sparks as partners, and together with them serve God.”
Parshat Bresheit tells the creation story of the earth and the humans and animals living upon it – this year, it also marks the beginning of the Shmita year. The Shmita year is all about revisioning our relationship to creation. Instead of being owners of the land, Shmita reminds us to release that illusion of ownership and embrace our place as partners with creation. In parshat Beraisheet we read our Jewish stories of creation. It can sometimes be a little difficult to find those messages of partnership in our creation stories. But Judaism has always started from biblical stories and then retold them in ways that inspire and fit the spirit of the times.
The Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kolonymus Kalman Shapiro, in his book Derekh HaMelekh retells the creation story (Here is my adapted version of his retelling):
God created the First Human by gathering soil from all four corners of the world. When the First Human(s) disobeyed God, sparks of their soul fell back down and were scattered all through the world. So, the whole world is filled with soul sparks, in a myriad of forms. Our job in this life is, and has always been, to recognize our kinship with the world, to connect with those sparks as partners, and together with them serve God. When we do that, we, and the world, feel deep, true joy. If, however, we forget that the world is our partner, holy sparks offering us opportunities to serve, and we relate to the world as mere objects, we distort our souls and damage the world. We fall into desperate, self-defeating obsessions and addictions, searching for the true joy that we know is there but have forgotten how to find.
Mixing in midrash and kabbalah, the Piaseczner Rebbe retells our creation story in a way which fits perfectly with the spirit of Shmita: The business-as-usual mode of the six other years can push us towards the illusion that the physical world is full of mere objects or “resources” for our use and profit. Shmita reminds us that the benefits we enjoy come to us as a part of our relationship to the Source of Life and to the earth itself. We are partners with, not owners of, creation.
This shmita year may we be blessed with finding opportunities to let go of the illusion that we stand apart as owners, and instead embrace our partnership with creation, bringing joy to ourselves and to the earth.
Natan Margalit is the author of The Pearl and the Flame: A Journey into Jewish Wisdom, Ecological Thinking and Healing in a Fragmented World (forthcoming 2021 from Albion-Andalus Books). Natan was raised in Honolulu. He lived for twelve years in Israel where he received rabbinic ordination (1990). His Ph.D. in Talmud is from U.C. Berkeley (2001). Natan has taught at Bard College, RRC and the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He is currently Chair of the Rabbinic Texts department in the Aleph Ordination Program and he directs the AOP’s Earth-Based Judaism Program. Natan is Founder of Organic Torah which is a program of Aleph. He will be teaching a course this fall through Hebrew College’s Open Circle Jewish Learning and Organic Torah on “Our Relation to Creation.” Visit his site for more information.