TGIS: Thank goodness it’s sh…mita!

Erika Owens

About Erika Owens

I’m a writer and organizer based in Philadelphia, where I work at the intersection of tech, journalism, and social justice. I’m a member and board member of Kol Tzedek synagogue and love reading and wandering, especially by bike and transit.

About TGIS: Thank goodness it’s sh…mita!

This semester I returned to school for a master’s in social justice and decided to write about shmita as a conceptual and practical framework for how we can create a more just society. And while there is a growing field of scholarship on the environmental impact of shmita, which I find exciting. I wanted to go in a slightly different direction in this piece and explore the intersection of the personal and political through the topic of rest.

Throughout the year, the Jewish calendar gives us Shabbat every week and makes us conscious of the passing of the seasons as holidays and candle lighting times shift. Every seven years we also encounter shmita, an opportunity for accountability to ourselves, each other, and the land through a “release,” a rest for the land and cancellation of debts. It is through rest we too can find relief, and seek justice for ourselves and our neighbors: rest from work, from worry, from want.

In its biblical telling, shmita is a collective practice: the community leaves its fields fallow, even removing fences to make it easier to access the open fields. For such an agrarian culture, David Krantz argues a year of rest for the land is also “a year for farmers themselves, and not just the land, to rest.” The absence of work creates space. This space allows for, and requires, a shift in relationship with the land and with each other: it necessitates foraging rather than plowing, opens up time for study or deepening relationship with family and strangers alike. In our modern context, few of us are full-time farmers, but who wouldn’t want a glimpse of retirement every seven years? Rather than waiting for retirement, we can find our own ways to build in rest into our work.

While I’m captivated by the idea of building rest into work, I immediately think: how could I possibly pay for that? Shmita provides a startlingly simple answer: cancel debt. A clean financial slate every seven years would make it a lot harder to get into life-altering amounts of debt, and brings a savings cycle into a much easier to comprehend time span than the decades it takes to save for retirement. While the financial implications of debt cancellation are obvious, cancellation would also relieve a tremendous amount of worry. Five-, six-figure school and medical debts can hang over people’s heads for years, dictating life choices and causing both ongoing and acute stress. Without the commandment to cancel debt that shmita provides, we are left with abolish debt campaigns and lobbying of the government to cancel federal student loans. These collective efforts indicate an important strategy for how to begin to provide relief. This high holidays the synagogue I attend, Kol Tzedek, sought to raise $25,000 from its 350 member families to cancel medical debt. Together, our community ultimately raised $42,000 to cancel $4.2 million of medical debt in our city. This tremendous collective fundraising effort, by just a few hundred families, demonstrates what our our senior rabbi Ari Lev Fornari described on Rosh Hashanah 5782: “what we need is here.” We collectively are enough and can provide to each other what we need.

And as the travesty of medical debt in the U.S. shows, what so many of us need is a rest from want. A rest from material deprivation, which again shmita is designed to help remedy. As the fields lie fallow, for what does grow, “let the needy among your people eat of it” (Exodus 23:11). It is a glimpse of what a future could look like without want, with what we need at hand, for all of us. To get there we prioritize the needy first, with the land providing for the poor in the biblical era and our neighbors providing debt abolition for medical care in our modern one. With time away from work and freedom from worry, we are able to show up to take care of one another. Shmita offers a template of how to take care of each other, the land, the animals, and it is our challenge to take up that template and mold it for our current world. Jewish environmental groups are leading the way, exploring the ecological wisdom of shmita and modeling practices of rest and renewal. And each of us has a chance to be part of that building of a just world.

When I first encountered the Thank God It’s Shabbat acronym, I loved the joke. I grew up watching the TGIF television version every Friday night and appreciated how something so ’90s was being invoked to share a little joy, but also invite rest and ritual and communal Shabbat practice. Let’s consider TGIShmita as a similar invitation in pursuit of one small piece of tikkun olam: to engage with Torah that teaches periods of release and rest in order to alleviate the burdens of work, worry, and want.