Covid-19 and Torah: Advice from the Sabbatical Year

By Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, D. Min.

Can a rarely-practiced piece of Torah, dormant for most of the Common Era, help us weather the Novel Coronavirus crisis? Yes, Shmita can – and a fresh look at this biblical practice offers guidance for other challenges of our time, too.

Every Shmita, or Sabbatical Year (Shvi’it), we are to let the land lie fallow. Taken literally it’s a huge burden, wholly incompatabile with modern life; it collapsed with the destruction of the Second Temple (though elements have lately been reclaimed within Israel’s Haredi community).

Across the liberal Jewish world, where the spirit of Torah carries greater weight than the letter of the law, Shmita is now emerging as a north-star teaching, a directional goal, a moral and spiritual compass. Its teachings and implications address ecologial sustainability, social justice, spiritual renewal, communal resilience, and more. The goal is not to restore a straight-up seventh-year sabbatical, but to embed “Shmita-consciousness” into our communal and individual lives, and thus ennrich them.

As Jewish communities now adapt, newly each day, to the spread of covid-19 and the health guidance around it, our values should serve as a bedrock. The ancient teachings of Shmita are a good place to start. Among them are:

  • The power of small and intentional communities. We never know when new flus will appear, but we do know that they regularly will. Shmita-consciousness entails being ready for anything, including epidemics. In a society prepared for disruption and downshifting every seven years or so, small is beautiful. People really know each other, and interdependence is celebrated. Synagogues and havurot are, at their best, modern examplars of these timeless virtues – the very virtues modeled by Federated agencies, and taught through Jewish educational institutions. With every new virulent disease, recession, natural disaster (many exacerbated by climate change), or other “black swan” event, the worth of intentional communities like ours is proved again and again.
  • Relevance through Resilience. With real experience and expertise in this realm, Jewish communities will have deep Torah to teach, and real roles to play, davka in a pandemic – even if we do so online, or remotely. After all, Jewish history is one long narrative of resilience. And living with Shmita-consciousness, as if another huge speedbump always lies ahead, forces us to build resilience into the very fabric of our lives and institutions. That same consciousness will help our communities weather any coming changes – from ‘social distancing,’ to fewer or no oneg shabbats and kiddush luncheons, to live-streaming instead of sitting in shul, and maybe much more.
  • No hoarding! Hand sanitizer, masks, and even toilet paper are suddenly hard to come by. Rampant individualism runs amok within a climate of fear – a perfect storm for the ascendance of the yetzer hara (evil or selfish impulse). Yet Shmita insists on a sharing economy – in resource-stressed times, everyone gleans freely from whatever sprouts on “private” property; once crops are exhausted in the field, homeowners must open their personal pantries, and declare all their food public. The deep truth that “we’re all in this together” is rooted in our personal and communal practice.
  • Special concern for underprivileged communities. Judaism’s profound tradition of pursuing justice, redifat tzedek, is exemplified in Shmita’s special concern that the ger (stranger-immigrant-Other), and the servant or low-wage worker, have enough to get by, as do the landless Levite and socially disadvantaged orphan and widow (Deut. 15). Such values must be front and center in a global pandemic, which tests the strongest health care systems – even as tens of millions of Americans remain un- or under-insured, and billions around the world struggle with inadequate resources. So long as some people can’t or won’t seek diagnosis and treatment, no one is safe from the spread of disease.
  • Get religious about hand-washing. Ahead of its time, the sabbatical concept saw that the land needs regular rest, crop rotation, and regeneration time (Ex. 23). Consonant with the best available empirical data, Shmita made religious virtue of scientific necessity – even warning of the inevitable consequences (Lev. 26) should we fall short. Likewise, now heeding epidemiologists and public health experts on proper protection and hygiene, we revitalize old rituals – like washing hands before we eat – fastidiously, for 20+ seconds, with soap!
  • Think longterm. Shmita’s seven-year cycles mandate long-range planning. After seven such cycles, the fiftieth Jubilee year (Yovel, Lev. 25) turns Jewish time-scales truly intergenerational. Had we thought accordingly, and not let public health infrastructure wither, we’d be in less tzuris (pain/trouble) today. Still, society quickly mobilized to meet this sudden acute challenge: billions of dollars, sweeping rules, mass quarantines. Can’t we, then, do the same for chronic challenges? With Shmita-consciousness, we can tackle our longest-range troubles – from finally commiting to reverse the deadly juggernaut of climate change, to buckling down and properly rebooting the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Yes, we can.
  • Accompany the mourner. Though still smaller than the season flu, covid-19 claims too many – 1%, 2%, even 3.4%. The privation of each sabbatical year surely hurt human health; likewise, and more, will the Novel Coronavirus. The pastoral burden is real. All are called to compassion and presence – even from quarantine.
  • Enjoy the Break. But of those with covid-19, 80% or more should experience only mild symptoms. For this generally healthy majority, ‘Shmita’ offers a chance to renew oneself – to “cross-train,” do different things, hone new skills – to reflect, relax, regenerate. Holed up for weeks on end, may enforced ‘sabbaticals’ be embraced as growth opportunities. The next actual Shmita is 5782 (starting Fall 2021) – but for thousands and maybe millions, ‘sabbatical’ comes early this year. Let’s make the most of it.
  • Don’t Panic! “Shmita” means “radical release,” and the release we need now is from the clutches of fear. Many sing Reb Nachman of Bratzlav’s adapted words, ha’ikar lo l’fached – “the main thing is not to be afraid” – yet he actually wrote lo hit’pached, “don’t make yourself [overly] fearful,” or “don’t be done in by your fear.” The CDC couldn’t say it better.

We may yet contain this new Coronavirus; we may have to endure it until it’s no longer “Novel.” Either way, may we come out the other side stronger, wiser, and more interdependent (our people have overcome worse, before). And may the resilient wisdom of our ancestors, starting with Shmita, point the way.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda MD, chairs the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.