By David Eisner
We have reached an exciting time of the year. The air has turned crisp and the leaves vibrant shades of red and yellow. The holiday season, with its family gatherings and festive mood, is just around the corner. For many, the old song’s adage rings true: “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
But in today’s busy world, with its onslaught of advertisements blaring messages of consumption from all corners, it can be all too easy to lose touch with the season’s deeper meanings. It is all too easy to forget to stop, truly give thanks and, most importantly, to give back.
At Repair the World, we work to make giving back a defining part of American Jewish life. We aim to inspire people in the Jewish community and beyond to make service to others a priority in their lives. Our Fellowship program is an example. Throughout the 11-month program, Repair the World empowers young Jews living and volunteering in 5 cities across the United States (Pittsburgh, New York City, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Baltimore), to address social issues and build relationships in their communities through service. Meanwhile, we also seek out connections back to Jewish tradition, which is filled with wisdom about the importance of generosity and seeking out justice. When I first heard about #GivingTuesday – a global day dedicated to giving back – I immediately thought about service, and how giving one’s time to a cause you care about is a way to live out the values of Giving Tuesday, as well as the Jewish value of incorporating service and tikkun olam into daily life. I also began to think about another Jewish concept, shmita.
It just so happens that the Jewish calendar is also in the middle of an exciting moment. Once every seven years in the land of Israel, the shmita year arrives. According to biblical tradition, shmita, which literally means “release,” halts business as usual. Jewish text says, “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh year, you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave, let the wild beasts eat of it.” (Exodus, 23:10-11).
When we let those words settle for a moment, their radical nature comes clear. For an entire calendar year – this past Rosh Hashanah to the next – everything changes. Nothing is planted or harvested from the land. It is allowed to lie fallow and rest. Meanwhile, provisions are made for people of less means to find sustenance.
Another radical aspect of the shmita year is that all debts between people are forgiven and the slates are wiped clean. The text proclaims, “Every seventh year you shall practice release of debts … every creditor shall release his authority over what he claims from his neighbor. (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). Imagine living in a society that had good will and second chances built into its very fabric!
Of course, there are issues of practicality with the shmita year. Biblical ideals do not always merge seamlessly with everyday life. But metaphorically speaking, shmita serves as something of a societal reset button. It is a reminder that everything – people, animals, and the land, included – deserves an opportunity to rest. It shines a light on our frenetic and often chaotic pace of life, reminding us that it is not sustainable, especially if it is not countered with moments of stillness.
Shmita also shines a light on the importance of supporting one another in times of scarcity, as well as abundance – and striving towards building just societies. Moving at the speed that many of us do, we are destined to get off kilter. Shmita helps us slow down, to release, and make space to bring wholeness and healing to our own lives and the lives of those around us.
In that sense, shmita’s values perfectly complement those of #GivingTuesday. By dedicating a day for actively giving back, #GivingTuesday unites individuals, families, businesses, and whole communities in rallying around the common purposes of spreading generosity and good will. Shmita is Jewish tradition’s small but resounding addition to that global celebration. By giving money, or by giving our time on #GivingTuesday through service and directing our energy towards repairing the world (tikkun olam), we can help in a small way to realize shmita’s ideals.
It is my hope and blessing during this season of winter holidays, and the shmita year, that we say yes to the bountiful opportunities they bring. In doing so, we have everything to gain, and everything to give.
David Eisner is President and CEO of Repair the World, a national nonprofit that works to make service a defining element of American Jewish Life.