Sign In Forgot Password

Rabbi Miriam Berger

Shabbat  B’Har 5782

You can listen to Rabbi Miram's sermon here or read below.



It’s not surprising that a huge number of our B’nei Mitzvah are referencing the pandemic in their Friday night readings and divrei torah. I’m struck however by how many of them mention a slower pace with far fewer demands being made of them. The escape from the gruelling timetable of school and an abundance of hours to play computer games.  The experience of the last two years for the young and perhaps for those who were retired was somewhat different from the experience of those who were working and particularly from those who had the privilege of juggling it with parenting. I acquired a huge number of skills over the last two years, and I don’t just mean that I now generally remember to unmute myself before speaking on a zoom call and feel smug when I remember to share computer sound when I’m screen sharing. No, my new skills extended far beyond that. 

I learnt that with no travel time between meetings one could maximise one’s working hours by flitting from one zoom to the next without so much as a toilet break between. 

I learnt that you could be in a conference in America whilst making dinner and that what had once been enforced ‘parent time’ after school pick up and before evening meetings could now double up, as it’s more than possible to sit near the touchline at football and still be at a committee meeting from your phone. 

Vast swathes of people learnt to work earlier and later with no commute to stand in their way.  Water-cooler chats with colleagues that used to break up the day were replaced with putting the washing on or stacking the dishwasher. 

For a large part of society these last two years did not create a lockdown pause, with languages learnt and decluttering perfected, but it meant two years of spinning more plates more successfully or juggling more balls higher and faster. 

The problem is that while life might be returning to ‘normal’, new expectations have been established and I’m genuinely worried about the number of people who seem completely frazzled by this new even faster pace, even more 24/7 life with even fewer boundaries now that geography is just no excuse. 

This rather extraordinary new pace of life that was seemingly created overnight in response to a crisis is quite simply, unsustainable. 

For Parashat B’har I’m calling for society’s very own 2022 Shmita

Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb of the Conservative Yeshiva explains that “The term shmita in the Torah generally indicates some type of release, “letting go”, after an extended period.”

I think we’ve had the extended pandemic period and now society needs a Shmita - a letting go. A letting go of all we’ve picked up as a response to it. The anxiety, the lack of holidays, the disregard of boundaries and the inability to step over the threshold and either leave work or be fully at home. 

And yet with the cost-of-living crisis inching ever closer and anxiety building around when (if it hasn’t already), the effects will start meaning that those who thought they had the appropriate income to support their lives are finding they are no longer making ends meet. It feels one set of pressures which led to this new world order is being replaced with a second. Pandemic fears led to hoarding and the ultimate desire to store for oneself more than anyone could ever need. We need to put down the toilet rolls, not get sucked into the hysteria around all the latest items which are challenging to get hold of and work together in repairing in the aftermath. This call for Shmita isn’t just about putting things down, it’s asking for a social reset. We need to re-establish the social norms and make society sustainable. 

Goldfarb explains that “Shmita is discussed at three places in the Torah:

1)    In Shmot Ch 23:10-11 we are told to cultivate the land, vineyards and olive groves for six years, but תִּשְׁמְטֶנָּה וּנְטַשְׁתָּהּ – “to let go and withdraw” in the seventh…“the needy will eat just as you do, and wild animals will eat what’s left.” The purpose of Shmita here is to limit our work activity and the ownership of our work product – we are not meant to be workaholics or to make the accumulation of wealth the highest priority.

This explanation of Shmita asks us to evaluate our priorities and to make appropriate time for each.  It’s not about resting as much as giving work its time in order to make room for other things as well.

2) In this week’s parasha, words we have just read, Vayikra 25:4, the command to desist from agricultural work in the seventh year takes a different focus:

וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לה':

But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord.

This time the produce of the seventh year is to be shared with a specific group of the less fortunate – one’s employees, indentured servants and workers, plus, once again, the animals. But the prime “beneficiary” is, oddly, the land, God’s land. We must not think that we are its ultimate owners.

This is our Shmita to reset for equity.  Hoarding at other people’s expense, having more than we need when the use of foodbanks and those in fuel crisis are unable to function is not what the pursuit of justice can lead to.  How do we accept that our fortune cannot be at the expense of others and see our duty in being part of the reset?  We are not entitled to all we have; we are simply lucky and other people’s fortune is dependent on us not seeing it as our God-given right to have all we have.  In fact, it’s a God-given reset.  

3) Deuteronomy 15:1-2 offers a very different sort of Shmita after seven years, of monetary debts. The Torah explains dvar ha’shmita “how it’s done” - debts owed by one’s neighbor or brother are “let go”, not to be collected, “because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed (כִּי קָרָא שְׁמִטָּה לה')”. 

Shmita in the Torah constitutes a form of social “reboots” every 7 (and 50) years, to correct somewhat the inequities that have occurred in these periods, and to reduce the gap between rich and poor.”

This Shmita seems to suggest that if one chapter of your life forces you to become destitute it should not be an affliction forever but the Shmita reset brings equality. Though debt does not leave people sold into slavery the political situation in one’s home country is seeing people fleeing for their lives around the world.  Surely the abhorrent idea of turning away refugees and sending them to Rwanda leaves no scope for the change to experience a reset, a new beginning, a chance to escape poverty.  I had naively assumed that the talk of Rwanda was a clever political spin to take the heat off of “Partygate” and am horrified to see this move in this direction is continuing.  We must call for a 2022 Shmita for the benefit of all refugees.

We need a reboot. We need to establish work and home for people after the boundaries blurred and we need to reset for equality so that people are not going without while others are hoarding more and more. Shmita is a mindset as much as agricultural technique. It’s the response to coming out of pandemic. Shmita.  A reset. A realignment. It’s the shedding of the fear which led to the behaviours and a restating the boundaries. The new norm was created in panic. As we let go of the panic, we need to let go of the panic-induced behaviours which have no place in civil society.

A 2022 Shmita needs to be a Shmita for the individual in the prioritising of their time, a Shmita for the community to ensure equality and dignity for all and a Shmita for the globe to ensure that those who fall into poverty and statelessness are given a home, security and citizenship.    

Ken yehi ratzon.

Sun, 26 June 2022 27 Sivan 5782