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The High Holidays and Shmita a Multidimensional Opportunity

September 13, 2021

As an Orthodox Environmental organization, we often call Tu B’Shvat our “busy season”, since many of us treat it as a Jewish Earth Day. We run programs for organizations throughout the month of Shvat, teaching thousands of individuals about the Torah laws regarding humans and nature. It is truly a wonderful time of year for our small but mighty organization. Of course, just like we are not supposed to pick favorite children, we ought not to pick favorite Jewish Holidays, but we are partial to that winter season, Ashamnu. 

This year, however, the High Holidays (which for most conventional Jews is the “busy season”), feel particularly resonant, especially for us, because 5782 marks a Shmita year.  That, coupled with the recent publication of the sixth assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), makes our relationship to G-d and the land feel ever more precarious, challenged, and in need of a thorough reset, release, and returning - a so-called “Shmita Tshuva”. 

Rosh Hashana, interestingly, is but one of four “New Years” in the Jewish calendar. We mark the first of Tishrei (AKA Rosh Hashana) for counting the Shmita cycles; the fifteenth of Shvat (Tu B’shvat) for Torah laws pertaining to fruit trees;  the first of Nisan begins the year for kings and holidays; and lastly, the first of Elul is the New Year for cattle tithing (Mishna, Rosh Hashana, 1:1-1:2). Each of these four days represents a different aspect of our relationship with G-d: humanity, animals, the earth, and G-d. 

When exploring the laws of Shmita, we find a parallel topical segmentation, each one is taught separately whenever Shmita is mentioned throughout the Torah. In Deuteronomy, the Shmita focus is on the remission of debts, stressing the need to care for other humans (Deut. 15:2). In Exodus, the text emphasizes caring for the poor among us, and our animals (Ex. 23:10). In Leviticus, Shmita is called a “Sabbath of the Lord” (Lev. 25:4), then a “Sabbath for the Land” (Lev. 25:5). (A more complete Shmita Text study is available here). Shmita returns every seventh year, providing us the opportunity to heal our relationships with each other, the land, its creatures, and with G-d. The beauty here is the multidimensional focus of Shmita - it does not serve one exclusive purpose, but it is all-encompassing.

Every Rosh Hashana, and throughout this Shmita year, we are commanded to commit ourselves not just to G-d in a vacuum, but through our entire human existence - with each other, with the flora, the fauna, and the whole planet earth. These four channels of our relationship with G-d are the basis for GrowTorah’s four core educational values: 1. Incubating Emunah, 2. Environmental Stewardship 3. Compassion for all creatures and 4. Living Tzedakah. These four themes are what we live and breathe through all of our programs.

In our work this year in Yeshiva Day schools, shuls, and other Jewish Communal institutions, we are going deep with these themes: What is our relationship to the earth and Hashem? How can we improve it? What fractures need healing? What cycles need a reset? What can we do about it all? We encourage you all to invite the cycles of rest, release, and rejuvenation into your own lives, especially after all of the turmoil of the past two years. 

With Yom Kippur quickly approaching, let us examine, reset, strengthen, and heal our relationships on all levels. We are multifaceted beings, and our tradition reminds us of this on a regular basis. May we all be blessed with a complete teshuva - a complete return to our whole selves, embracing our multifaceted existence, and our complex relationships with each other, the land, all of its creatures, and with G-d. 

Yosef Gillers and Sara Just-Michael are the Co-Executive Directors of GrowTorah.