By Rabbi Jessy Dressin, Senior Director of Jewish Education
and Wendy Rhein, Senior Director of Philanthropy
It’s spring 2021, and Jaqob Harris (xe/xem/xyr)* has just arrived at 1Hood Media, a Pittsburgh nonprofit, inspired to help meet a pressing need in xyr community. Jaqob is there to assist with election education, but in the process xe gets to know folks in xyr extended community and listens to stories about the experiences of xyr neighbors. Reflecting later, Jaqob speaks of much more than the work xe performed:
“The most significant change for me has to be how much I learned about myself, and how others view the issues we face,” said Jaqob, a member of Repair the World’s Service Corps spring 2021 cohort. “I had the opportunity to think about and look into how we experience modern racism, oppression, discrimination, etc., and how it’s perpetrated throughout national and local systems — as opposed to just being told that it exists.”
As Jaqob learned, sometimes unexpected insights volunteer themselves to us when we serve. This Rosh Hashanah, we welcome a shmita year, or Sabbatical year — a year that invites us to approach things from a different perspective, one that tells us to be open to the unexpected.
The Torah, Judaism’s foundational text, instructs that every seventh day of the week should be a day of rejuvenating rest. In a concentric circle of time, the Torah further instructs that every seventh year should be a year of reset, recalibration, and release. In Exodus 23:10-11, it is written: “six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield and the seventh you shall let it rest and lay fallow.” This shmita year has simple but profound instructions: let the land lie fallow, release people from their acquired debts, and see what emerges when we take time to learn new things. In Deuteronomy, the Torah further teaches that abundance follows this release.
At first glance, it seems a shmita year might be a year of refrain, framed by what we do not do. However, the invitation is actually to consider what we can do and can learn when we recalibrate how we approach our actions and commitments. A spiritual reset might make space for more na’aseh v’nishma, the Jewish value of action and learning, which can spur generative growth as we move toward the future.
In its traditional form, a distinct tenet of shmita is leaving fields uncultivated and unplanned so we can notice what might volunteer itself in that time. In an agricultural sense, a volunteer is a plant that grows without the gardener’s intention. Most often volunteers bloom from seeds dropped organically or by animals that leave behind the remnants of a garden forage. They are either nuisances or surprising gifts, depending on your attitude. In a shmita year, we depend on such volunteers — we need the unexpected and unplanned to flourish in the spaces that we decide not to control or cultivate.
Observing shmita in the 21st century can be a challenge. Most of us do not have fields that we let lie fallow, nor do we possess the power to eliminate major areas of burden that may have fallen upon our neighbors. Yet, there are opportunities to reflect on our spheres of influence, new ways to connect with those we may live in proximity to but not really know, and daily needs that, if met, can relieve momentary burdens that may allow someone a bit of respite during a period of real challenge. There are ample opportunities to approach the year from a place of inquiry and curiosity: How can I reconsider my actions and practices in order to engrain the reminder that there is a greater purpose to the world, especially if we look through a lens of Jewish values and spiritual potential?
The Torah promises us that even if we let go of our plans and expectations, release our desire to be in control, and create our experiences, we will have more than enough to sustain us, as counterintuitive as that may seem. In the last year, when so much changed and we could not gather and serve in traditional ways, Repair the World did not shy away from its mission and goals, but instead doubled down and reimagined what Jewish service could look like through our Serve the Moment initiative, Repair’s pandemic response initiative, that in turn opened Jaqob’s eyes to the ways oppression manifests in the community.
Rethinking our programming allowed us space for new ideas and new ways of serving — including virtual and smaller group gatherings, such as the Cleveland Vaccine Appointment Network, powered by Cleveland Repair, where young adults ensured those without access to the internet or lacking technology skills could still secure COVID vaccine appointments.
Repair has learned and grown as an organization in the last year, transitioning from an extraordinary moment to a powerful movement, culminating in a new Service Era in which service is a cornerstone of Jewish life at every age and every stage.
This September, as the Jewish community enters the first month of the year 5782, Repair will provide you with opportunities to reflect on and deepen your connection with service and community. In the spirit of Repair’s upcoming Sukkot service campaign, you can start by downloading Shelter of Peace, a guide to showing up for our unhoused neighbors and taking responsibility for housing insecurity.
As an organization and individuals, we look forward to spending the coming year reflecting and innovating in the continued pursuit of new perspective and growth. And we encourage you to do the same — to observe shmita by letting go of a limited view of service and instead being open to the learning and growth that volunteers itself when you become present for others. Meet unexpected opportunities and new connections with curiosity. Consider how both your actions and insights may take root and become generative and fruitful well beyond this year. How will you move into this year with open eyes, and how will you steward and cultivate what you learn in the years to follow?
The shmita year imagines a recalibration and reset necessary for the land, for ourselves, and for our communities to sustain themselves for the long haul. We invite you to serve with us this year and embody the Jewish value of action and learning, so that together we may repair the world incrementally, in ways that can be sustained over time.
*Xe/xem/xyr is a set of gender-neutral pronouns.