release and regenerate
www.sefaria.org/Deuteronomy.11.12Every seven years, every cell in the human body regenerates. This fact has always amazed me. I remember thinking on the seventh anniversary of my coming out as trans that every cell in my body is fully me now. When I officiate at a wedding, I often begin by sharing that the number seven represents wholeness and completion. This helps to explain why the ritual begins with seven circles. But what if the significance of seven is less about completion and more about regeneration?
In this moment in time, we find ourselves in the midst of three different cycles of seven.
The first of which is Shabbat.
The Torah begins with a creation story in which in six days the heavens and the earth and everything in it is created, and on the seventh day the Holy One ceased from the work of creation. This is our first paradigm for the (notably prime) number 7 as a unit of time.
The second cycle is the Omer.
We are instructed to count the days following the festival of Passover, a period of seven weeks of seven days, for a total of 49 days. And we are instructed that the 50th day, following this period of weeks, we are to observe the holiday of Shavuot (which is fast approaching and begins Sunday evening, May 16). Today is the 40th day of the omer.
The third cycle is that of the Sabbatical year, in which we are nearing the end of the sixth year in a seven-year cycle. We receive this teaching in the opening verses of this week's double Torah portion Behar-Behukotai. Leviticus 25 reads:
וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗ת שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַיהוָ֑ה שָֽׂדְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תִזְרָ֔ע וְכַרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תִזְמֹֽר׃
But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Holy One: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.
Much like the observance of Shabbat, in which we work for six days and rest on the seventh, we are instructed to work the land for six years and to let the land rest on the seventh. This cycle comes to be known as the practice of Shmita.
In fact, the Torah teaches us about this practice three times. Once in Exodus 23, in Leviticus 25, and then in Deuteronomy 15. In the first two occurrences, it describes an agricultural practice in which the land gets to rest. But in Deuteronomy, it actually describes a practice of economic justice in which all debt is forgiven. The word Shmita itself actually means release or letting go, and comes to be equally associated with both agricultural and economic practices.
And much like we count the Omer, our Torah portion explains that we should also count the weeks of years:
וְסָפַרְתָּ֣ לְךָ֗ שֶׁ֚בַע שַׁבְּתֹ֣ת שָׁנִ֔ים שֶׁ֥בַע שָׁנִ֖ים שֶׁ֣בַע פְּעָמִ֑ים וְהָי֣וּ לְךָ֗ יְמֵי֙ שֶׁ֚בַע שַׁבְּתֹ֣ת הַשָּׁנִ֔ים תֵּ֥שַׁע וְאַרְבָּעִ֖ים שָׁנָֽה׃
You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years...
וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּ֗ם אֵ֣ת שְׁנַ֤ת הַחֲמִשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ יוֹבֵ֥ל הִוא֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְשַׁבְתֶּ֗ם אִ֚ישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ וְאִ֥ישׁ אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ תָּשֻֽׁבוּ׃
and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.
I would say this is yet a fourth cycle of counting, except that we don't quite know where we are within it or if its lofty visions have ever been realized.
What I do know is that we are preparing to enter a Shmita year in 5782. The practices of Shmita -- Release and Regenerate -- will be this year's High Holidays theme and we will have abundant opportunities to learn, engage, and reclaim them. There are a seemingly infinite number of interpretations of Shmita, so many I can hardly choose where to begin or how to define it. Given the proximity to Shavuot, let us begin here.
Rabbi David Seidenberg writes,
"The whole purpose of the covenant at Sinai is to create a society that observed Shmita... The Sabbatical year was the guarantor and the ultimate fulfillment of the justice that Torah teaches us to practice in everyday life, and it was a justice that embraced not just fellow human beings, but the land and all life... In modern parlance we call it 'sustainability,' but that's just today's buzzword. It's called Shmita in the holy tongue, 'release'—releasing each other from debts, releasing the land from work, releasing ourselves from our illusions of selfhood into the freedom of living with others and living for the sake of all life... This is what it means to 'choose life so you may live, you and your seed after you.' (Deut. 30:19) This is what it means to 'increase your days and your children's days on the ground for as long as the skies are over the land.' (Deut. 11:21)."
May we have the courage in all of the small moments to let go and release. And may the journey to Sinai and beyond lead us closer to a realization of this vision.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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