Modern life is fast paced and multi faceted. We are overwhelmed by emails, text messages, faxes, flyers, coupons, telemarketer calls, ringtones of sundry themes, and most of all, news from every medium possible. Newspapers, the internet, messages and stock quotes glide in lights outside buildings, and now, even on flatscreens in the office building elevator, broadcasting to its captive audience. Most of the news doesn't affect us, a good percentage of the calls are unnecessary and intrusive, and the ads pushy, imposing, and non-reflective of our values.
Historically there may have been fewer daily stimuli, but they were just as overwhelming. Things we take for granted today such as plumbing, electricity, easy shelter solutions, prepared food, and of course disposable goods, involved arduous tasks. Daily life itself was both difficult and distracting for most human beings on the planet.
In different forms, man has always been overwhelmed by pressing tasks or needs. While they may have metamorphosed from things necessary for survival to entertainment and the thirst for information, things that appear urgent are always competing with things that are truly important.
Imagine a Pause…...
Unplug and ask yourself what do you really care about and believe.
Imagine if there was a way to leave it all behind for just a while. What would we do? We might find ourselves helpless and bored, and perhaps faced with the fact that without the sensory overload we are utterly alone. That without an ipod, newspaper, radio or laptop, a commute is a nightmare. Alternatively we could choose to focus on the things that we deem truly important when there's time to think about things that really matter. It could be an opportunity to ask ourselves what we really care about and believe instead of letting commercial and social enterprises with subtle or obvious agendas dictate our thoughts.
In time such a space exists. Weekly it is called the Shabbat, and in the cycle of years, it is Shmitta, the sabbatical year, the land's Shabbat. It is a time when normal planting and harvesting activities in the land of Israel, which for most of history was primarily an agricultural society, cease. The land lies fallow and people look inward. Worries about sowing, pruning, maintenance, reaping, market prices and other concerns become irrelevant.
Shmitta is a time which goes beyond its historical significance. It holds a message as relevant today as it was when we received the Torah thousands of years ago. Since shmitta occurs every seven years, it should come as no surprise that the inner secret of shmitta lies within the number seven.
Sevens abound in Judaism. There are seven cycles of seven leading up to yovel, the jubilee year. There are seven heavens according to Jewish tradition. The national birth of our nation on Passover is followed by seven weeks of seven days, culminating with our receiving the Torah following their conclusion. King David, the very symbol of the Jewish monarchy and the messianic era his descendent will usher in, was the seventh son of Yishai and married Bat Sheva, literally, the daughter of seven. Seven days of celebration follow a wedding, with each meal accompanied by seven special blessings. We similarly mourn the dead for seven days. There are seven days of the week in virtually every society to this day, a phenomenon rooted in our tradition.
Why the fuss about seven?
Homonyms and other linguistic similarities in Hebrew are no coincidence.
A hint to the answer lies deep within the Hebrew language, as revealed in a biblical exchange between our forefather Abraham (whose seventh generation descendent was Moses, who took the Jews out of Egypt) and the Philistine king Avimelech. The Torah describes in detail how Abraham and Avimelech entered into a covenant which would also serve as testimony that Abraham's shepherds had dug a specific well whose ownership had been disputed. Abraham presented Avimelech with seven – sheva -- lambs, which he described as testimony that he had dug the well. The two entered into an oath, called a shavuah in Hebrew, and the place was therefore called Beer Sheva (Beersheba) on account of both the sheva lambs and the shavuah.
What was the point of seven lambs and how can we explain the similarity between the word sheva meaning seven and shavua meaning oath (as well as the seven day week and a complete seven year cycle), which is comprised of almost the same Hebrew letters?
Homonyms and other linguistic similarities in Hebrew, a language which our tradition maintains is of Divine origin, are no coincidence, especially when they are comprised of virtually the same Hebrew characters. For example the Hebrew word for ear is ozen. It was relatively recently that science discovered that one's ear does more than hear but also controls balance. Not surprisingly, the Hebrew word for balance is, and for thousands of years has been, izun, which not only sounds like the word ozen but is comprised of almost the same letters.
The key connection between sheva and shavua lies in the meaning of a shavua. A shavua, oath, which is typically found in court, is essentially an affirmation that one's statement today accurately describes a past event. In the case of Abraham, the oath and the city named for it to this day, would forever verify the covenant between Avimelech and Abraham. In Judaism the number sheva does the same thing. It is the thread that fuses things to their source.
The Seven Day Week
Shabbat and the seven day week illustrate this. It is nothing less than a wonder that the only temporal system for counting days that has survived history in a meaningful way is the seven day week that all governments use today. Unlike days which follow the earth's rotation on its axis, months which follow the moon's cycle, and years which parallel the earth's revolution around the sun, the seven day week has no natural parallel or astronomical basis. It seems to come from nowhere. Though used by the Hindus, Babylonians, Chinese, Romans and Egyptians, and later Christians and Moslems, who shifted the Sabbath to different days, the universal seven day system derived from Jewish practice.
Shabbat connects us back to the source of everything.
Its message according to our tradition is clear: six days parallel active creation of the world and the seventh parallel's God's "rest" from creation. Shabbat, therefore, attests to creation. It connects us back to the source of everything -- the beginning. Indeed, the word sheva itself comes from the word shav, to return.
The mystics describe the same concept in space. In a three dimensional plane, a point can expand in six opposite directions at ninety degree angles – right or left, back or front, up or down. Yet it is the point in the center, where the x, y, and z axis meet, that binds them together. In days that point is Shabbat, and in years, Shmitta.
Like Shabbat, Shmitta is a means for connecting everything back to its source. As we grow farther in time from the point of creation, we need Shmitta to bring us home. Just when creation seems a faded memory and we feel that mankind runs the world and that our brilliance has brought us whatever bounty humankind has achieved, shmitta brings a Shabbat to the land that changes everything.
According to Jewish law, fruits that grow during the special year in the land of Israel are public domain, and anyone, rich or poor can eat them. We are reminded that any personal property we have is nothing more than a Divine loan. Classic laws of property that give us comfort and delude us into thinking we run the world are suspended as debts are forgiven, and on the yovel following the culmination of seven shmitta cycles, land sales revert and property goes back to its tribal apportionment from the time Jews entered the land of Israel. Shmitta gives us the opportunity to melt away the distance between ourselves and creation, and to give the land back to God, thereby returning it to its source.
On a deeper level, Shmitta is a time for us to return to ourselves. On one hand, it reminds us of our inherent smallness and ineptitude, challenging our sense of ownership of the world. On the other, it underscores our greatness by providing a bridge that, when we contemplate the inner meaning of the year, connects us back to the awesome moments of creation and provides us with the an opportunity for intimacy with our Creator.
One who internalizes the deeper meaning of Shmitta has the tools to escape the cacophony of stimuli that crowd our day. We can't block out the clamor for an entire year, but we can put it into perspective. Once we contemplate the meaning of abandoning ownership of our own produce, and understand that by looking to our Creator for sustenance, the significance of the sensory overload that clutters our day fades. Shmitta and the message of the patterns of seven that permeate all of Jewish life provide us with a unique chance to come home.