Shmita Reflections Inspired by the Shoresh Food Conference
By Lauren Stein
The Torah mandates that every seventh year we leave the fields of Israel fallow (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shmita). This means taking a rest from the hard work of pruning, planting, and harvesting, so the land can restore itself.
Clearly this is specific to the lives of farmers in a largely agricultural society. But looked at from the perspective of this contemporary Canadian writer — what if that rule applied to other kinds of back-breaking labour? What if it meant not doing work you don’t enjoy, or work you only do because you think your life depends on it? Like the commandment to rest on Shabbat, what if this rest is as much about recharging our souls as it is about the ground? In the information economy of twenty-first century living, does this Torah principle apply only to the Israeli farmers among us — or is it based on a universal truth meant to be interpreted by all?
What would our society look like if we took a pause for one year out of seven from the way we look at and engage in the world? Would our ideas grow fresher, richer?
What would it feel like to walk down the street in a land where every single person is taking the year off to rest, re-evaluate, rejuvenate, explore, and discover their passions? How would we interact with each other? Would we break free from our Torontonian bubbles and make eye contact, perhaps even — dare I say it — smile at each other? Perhaps new stresses would overtake us and prevent us from going out. Or maybe we would finally get around to seeing the sights, connecting with the people, and doing the things we are always meaning to do.
What if, for one year, all teachers (and life-long students) took a sabbatical from analysing our world and living in our heads? Imagine if we spent that time in a Montessori-like quest to feel knowledge in our bodies, to express our thoughts through the arts, to live in the moment without quantifying it. Would we return to our essays and research with new insights? I wonder if there would be a shift in the types of questions we seek to investigate. When we return to work, could we better integrate non-rational fields, such as emotional life or spirituality, into our calculations?
What if all the computer programmers, indeed anyone whose job relied on computers, amongst us took off one year out of seven? Would the prescription of our glasses lighten as we spent less time with screens in front of our eyes? Would we see the world differently as a result of being restricted to interacting with people face to face?
Imagine if we took a societal workforce that was geared towards working hard until age 65 and expected to spend the years after that playing golf, and reframed it into an attitude of working a job you loved so much you never wanted to stop. And instead of one long retirement until death do you part, taking a “retirement break” every seven years so you still had that the time to travel, go on a spiritual quest, or focus exclusively on your family. Would you best utilise that time to “find yourself” and explore what makes you happy? Perhaps you would feel the satisfaction of finally working on all those niggling projects or ideas you always wished you could do. Maybe the much-needed break would help your priorities with making the most of those other six years. Might you resent your boss or your job less? Or perhaps leave your job or current situation, having seen better possibilities and knowing that you are capable of something else?
Would this change your perspective? In a culture that emphasises efficiency — I wonder if you might function more efficiently as a result when you do return. Would your life be richer, your fields appear lusher?
It might be difficult now to see whether this would be beneficial. In fact, it could take several cycles of Shmita years before it makes a positive impact. The good news is, there are experts who have already tried it. You can hear about their results in designer Stefan Stagmeister’s TED talk here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNuOmTQdFjA
Let’s pretend you just found out that from September 2014 until September 2015 you had to stop your job, your regimented studies, your farming, or whatever kinds of fields you are overplowing, and give your (mental) land a rest. How would you spend that time?