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Jewish practice of periodic rest for farmland — the ‘shmita’ year — has wider social, economic resonance

By RICHIE DAVIS Recorder Staff Friday, October 2, 2015 (Published in print: Saturday, October 3, 2015)

Just as Sabbath is a day of rest in Judaism and Christianity, the "shmita" year is defined in the Jewish Torah as a sabbatical year as part of a seven-year cycle, to give the land a rest.

But the concept of shmita isn't just for Jews, who just welcomed year 5776, and it isn't just for farmers.

With climate disruption, desertification, a growing rift between wealth and poverty, and other problems, the world's religious leaders, including Pope Francis, are pointing to a spiritual basis to restore the planet's environmental health and its frayed social fabric.

"Our world demands of all government leaders a will which is effective, practical and constant, concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment and thus putting an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion," the pope told the United Nations General Assembly last week.

With Sunday's end of the week-long Jewish harvest festival Sukkot, also comes the end of the shmita year, when the Torah commands that agricultural lands be allowed to go fallow and turned over to whoever is hungry, when farm animals are allowed to range freely.

More than simply a call for sustainable farming practices, which call for periodic rest for farmland, shmita is also about allowing gleaning of land seen as "the commons" and flattening out distinctions between rich and poor, with forgiveness for all debts.

"To me, it's a cultural blueprint for a resilient, just society and a just food system," said Abrah Dresdale, a permaculture teacher who developed a series of workshops on the practice she describes, like the sabbath, as "a restart, a time to return and reflect.

"Shmita puts a democracy of a region's food system back in the citizens' hands," she said, describing the ancient Jewish practice that seems especially timely for the Pioneer Valley's food-focused culture. According to the Torah prescription, "You're only allowed to consume food that's local, you can't export food, you're only allowed to eat food that's seasonal. And you can't horde food."

Celebrations at the end of the shmita year, known as the "hakhel'' are planned Sunday as a full-blown, interfaith "Harvesting Hope Farm Festival" in Northampton from 1 to 5 p.m., with puppets, parades, square dancing and tours of Abundance Farm. An afternoon festival is also planned in Brattleboro, Vt.

But a more significant observance in Greenfield open to people of all faiths -- looking at preparing for the next shmita year, beginning in the fall of 2021 -- is already underway, with a four-part series on shmita and sustainable living on Monday evenings as well as a day-long program Oct. 17 that includes teach-ins about "re-imagining our place in creation and organizing our economies around local resilience."

Dresdale, who helped create Greenfield Community College's farm and food systems program and is a teaching consultant in permaculture and food systems design, said that long before she learned about shmita, permaculture's core principles resonated for her: earth care, people care and resource share, along with paying attention to the cycles of nature and ecosystems -- and mimicking them.

One of nature's basic patterns is a cycle of growth and rest, as obvious as sleep and wakefulness or dormancy and growth.

The Jewish Sabbath, "Shabbat, and the shmita year, mimic that 'let's not be in a growth, profit, progress, production and expansion mode all the time," said Dresdale, "which is, in my observation, the ethics of capitalism. We're extremely out of balance, with the enormous inequity of wealth of this planet and with take, take, take and domination over the earth's natural resources."

The global, industrial food system, she points out, relies completely on fossil fuels, Dresdale said, as well as "cheap and exploitative labor, externalized costs like cruelty to animals, child labor, illegal migrant labor, runoff of manure in waterways, in dead zones (in lakes and oceans), and the fact that we waste one-third of food produced, with one in eight people food insecure in the state."

"We have this enormous imbalance in every single aspect our food system and our economic system, and in our exploitation of the earth. And we're seeing the repercussions, in what's breaking out in Syria, in terms of Black Lives Matters, in climate disruptions. So it's a poignant moment in time to look to a text that's at least 6,000 years old, that's a foundation of three of the world's major religions, and say, 'Maybe there are at least some good ethics in this idea of the shmita year, and all that it requires a community to do.'"

With that in mind, Dresdale has scheduled a four-part series on Shmita on Monday evenings beginning Oct. 19 at Temple Israel. (Registration is required by Oct. 9 by contacting the temple at 773-5884) And the temple is planning Oct. 18 and Nov. 1 food preservation workshops to follow up on 10 gallons of applesauce made last month as part of a "community resilience" exercise.

The Oct. 17 sustainability celebration, with afternoon discussions on community resilience led by Dresdale and environmental teacher David Arfa, will begin with a Jewish Torah service on the story of Noah, and "what does it mean to be righteous and to be tuned in to what's needed to continue life," in the words of Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener.

Dresdale has been invited to participate in a conference in Jerusalem, along with 30 to 40 other environmental, social justice and economic justice advocates from Israel, Europe and the U.S., on how to prepare for the next shmita cycle as a way to deal with the world's environmental and societal crises.

"This an exciting opportunity," she said. "We're at the budding head of the next cycle. We need to draw from a 'solidarity' economic framework, with re-localized food systems and an equitable distribution of wealth brought into our practices and preparations, so that the (next) seventh year is not the goal; it's like a litmus test: Are we set up to have a modern interpretation of release and redistribution and commons, so this becomes an embedded part of how we shift to 'the new earth?'"

You can reach Richie Davis at: [email protected] or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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