Rosh Hashanah Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, 5775
I want to start by wishing you all a shanah tovah — a good year. In the American fashion people will sometimes say "happy new year," like you do on New Year's Eve, the way you might say "happy birthday." But of course it is more realistic to wish someone a happy birthday — a 24-hour stretch is easier to fill with happy-making activities that produce short-turnaround happy outcomes. But a year? A year is a long time to stretch out happy.
And so the Jewish way is a little less ambitious. Not a happy year. We wish each other a shanah tovah. A good year. Gut yor. We know that every year will carry with it its sorrows, its achievements, its disappointments. Happiness will not be waiting at every turn. Yet we hope that in the aggregate it will turn out to be a year that was good.
And who's to measure? Who's to say one year is better than another? Some years might be more exciting. More marked by big events. But in the simple day to day, how easy is it to make a comparison?
That said, I'm going to go out on a limb and say this last year was terrible. It was a terrible year. Terrible in many ways for many people. There were garden variety sorrows—I know I'm not the only person in this room who lost a parent or loved one over the year. But there were also public sadnesses that we all shared together. Violence in the world — kidnappings, murders, lost planes, suicides, trouble in Ukraine and Syria and Iraq and Gaza and our precious and difficult Israel. It was a terrible year and I am not sorry to see it go.
Despair is hanging in the air, at least that's what I perceive, and I blame this last year for it.
As Jews we have a mixed relationship with bad times. We have a longstanding fatalistic streak, well justified. Anything bad that can happen, will happen, and often to us. There's an old Yiddish joke about the bear that escapes from the circus and the police give orders to shoot it on sight. A Jew starts packing his bags to get out of town. His neighbor asks, "Wait, why are you leaving?" The Jew says, "You know how it goes. They shoot first, and only afterward sort out whether it was a bear or a Jew."
Jewish fatalism. I see my grandmother shaking her head and saying gornisht helfn. "Beyond help."
But I think Jewish fatalism is only skin-deep. Because more often we respond to the deeply human compulsion to do something. We are, after all, a species characterized by being toolmakers. We are tinkerers, interveners, doers.
And all the more so as Jews I think. Torah contains 248 mitzvot aseh, i.e. commandments to affirmatively do something. Light candles, wash your hands, make sacrifices, give to the poor, pursue justice. We Jews are an action-oriented people. For many of us, action in the world is our way of being Jewish, which is why in the Western world there is barely a political movement or cultural phenomenon that is not statistically overpopulated with our people.
We don't just do to stay busy. We do because alongside our fatalism, we incongruously believe that the world can be a better place. That it is fixable—by us. Our mythos of Tikkun Olam, of the shattered world that can be repaired and redeemed, courses through us. We are cosmic fixers.
And we don't stop with the world around us. We fix us too. If the world is inherently broken, then aren't we inherently broken too? Don't we also need tikkun? Aren't these Days of Awe, with their chest-beating and confession, an enterprise based on the need to fix our brokenness? Heck, we don't even need a Jewish-driven reason. We have a consumer culture that tells us every day that we're not good enough; that there is always something we can do to make our lives better, our bodies sexier, our children smarter, our investments more profitable, our spirits more enlivened. And all those things can be gotten for the low low price of . . . , well, whatever the market will bear.
The constant striving to make ourselves, to make our lives better, to make the world better, is exhausting. And when our hopes for our lives or for the world don't come about, or don't come about as desired, we can only understand it as failure. This is why our helplessness over the summer, over this last year, hit us so very hard.
So here's where, I think, I hope, our tradition offers us a bit of medicine: shmitah.
Now for some of you, this word might be new. So let me first tell you what shmitah is not. It is not a disparaging Yiddish term for ragged clothing or bad fashion, as in Did you see that shmitah that Meryl Streep wore at the Oscars?
And shmitah is not a nonsense rhyming word that you might blurt out defiantly, such as, PETA shmitah, I'm gonna wear the fur anyway.
Instead, shmitah is the Biblical sabbatical year. (See? Sabbatical sounds nice, doesn't it?) This is theyear in which Torah says let your fields go fallow. No tilling. No plowing. No planting. No monkeying around. Just let the field be already. Give it a little shabbes.
Okay, I hear you thinking, we don't own fields. So how is this medicine?
It's medicine because shmitah is more than about farming. Sure, on its face, it looks like an antiquated system to keep fields productive. But of course, if the mitzvah of shmitah were just for that purpose, Torah could have done it better. It could have created a crop rotation system in which each field gets its time off every seven years, but not all at the same time. Having every field in the Israelite economy go fallow simultaneously? That's shocking! Asking a whole population to sit on their hands and hope there will be enough food is a stunning demand for Torah to make; a demand that clearly is meant to be about more than agricultural productivity. It is meant to teach a lesson as well.
The 18th Century Rabbi Chaim Luzzato, in his masterwork Derech Hashem, the Way of God, suggests that every mitzvah has two purposes. One is simple obedience. You do the thing because God says do the thing. But the second purpose is to help perfect some quality in us, not in the world, but in us, the doers of the mitzvah. So what is the quality in us that is perfected by laying off of the plow for a year? Maybe we are perfecting our ability to sit. To sit still. Not to do those extra ten things you could've done. Maybe shmitah teaches us to be okay with uncertainty. Wait. Listen. Breathe. To remember what it's like just to be when there is nothing you are required to do. To let go of control. To be vulnerable. To allow things to unfold. To have trust that somehow we will be okay; that deep down we are already okay.
Patience. Trust. These qualities of patience and trust are very challenging. For me at least. I am not naturally a sit-and-wait kind of guy. I spend my life in a whirlwind of doing. I find it hard to maintain any single contemplative practice over a long stretch. I once did a 10-day silent meditation retreat, at the end of which I should have been calm and equanimous, but instead I was ready to smack the next yuppy Buddhist offering me soup and an enlightened smile. But Torah, through the shmitah laws, takes the Buddhist position. Torah wants you to know that you cannot control it all.
Shmitah helps you absorb this hugely important information. That you are not the boss. Learn this, Torah is saying, or you are in for some significant suffering.
Shmitah reminds us to be humble in the world. It reminds us that the land doesn't belong to us. It may be yours to farm for six years; but every seventh you need to let it go back to its rightful owner, and that is not you.
Yet, I have to say, our sense of the land being here for our exclusive benefit is deep in our culture and our bones and very hard to shake. A few weeks ago I took a walk near my house on Sonoma Mountain. Along the road I came upon a large blackberry patch where, seeing that no one was looking, I proceeded to gorge myself - a childish and pitiable display. That is, it was a beautiful nature experience. And I looked up, beyond this patch, and saw a vast bed of blackberries — maybe an acre of them. They were a distance off the road, through impassable brush, and at the foot of a steep incline. It was clear that no one could actually get to them. I remember looking at them and thinking, "Well, that's a stupid waste of blackberries." I heard this thought in my head and was shocked. As if the blackberry didn't have its own life whose purpose was not to feed me. I looked at my purple fingers and felt shame.
As much as I unconsciously think that the blackberry should be of use, I think that about me too. I judge myself by my own utility. Always so busy. Always doing. And if I ask the question, who is there underneath all this utility, I can't say for certain that I always know.
So I think this is my shmitah challenge. Can I — not all the time, but in this shmitah year, in this special shabbes-like year — step back? Make some room? Breathe? Get a little more comfortable with the me who's not so busy trying to do and fix and please?
After all, isn't that the highest possible act of teshuvah? Returning to the you that is there underneath all the shoulds, underneath the plans and expectations. Returning to your integrity. To your longing. Returning to your neshamah, that deepest and holiest part of you. To arrive there with love and forgiveness, and to say, in Abraham's words in the traditional Rosh Hashanah Torah portion, hineini — here I am. Ah, here I am.
Perhaps revelation is waiting. Perhaps shmitah will reveal you to yourself.
Maybe we all give this a try over these Days of Awe.
And in suggesting that, I should probably make a disclaimer. While shmitah as a guide for farming demands an entire year of disengagement, shmitah as a spiritual practice doesn't. So don't worry, no one here is suggesting you lay off of all your doing for the next year. No one is suggesting that you stop engaging with the world or working for justice or scheduling your kid's soccer practice. But the shmitah law does offer a sense of proportion, a recipe to help your field regenerate. One in seven. Just like shabbat. One in seven. If you can take every seventh day, or hour, or minute, to let go of control and notice and honor who you are inside, I suspect you will be better equipped the other 6/7 of the time. And you will be a better instrument of change when you go back on Tikkun Olam duty.
So let us pray that in this coming year we can allow more shmitah consciousness into our lives. That in that consciousness we may find balance between doing (doing, doing, doing) and being. That we give our ambitious and perfectionist selves a sabbatical. That we sit better with what we can't change. That we open up to all the beautiful surprises that could grow in our own gardens if we backed off and letthem. After all, as far as we know, Eden didn't need so much tilling, did it?
May shmitah give us the tools to make this new year, even if not always a happy one, a good year; a good, good year.
The lovely thought and turn of phrase of something "revealing you to yourself" emerged from my old friend, the wise Ezra Cole.