Over the coming months, Americans will begin to benefit from the sweeping and historic infrastructure law. Aiming to improve how citizens access effective public transportation and clean drinking water, ship goods, utilize the internet, and cope with climate change, the legislation’s reach will extend across the entirety of the country. The measure’s millions of beneficiaries would be wise to consider how an ancient biblical national project of renewal, observed this year in Israel, might shape the cultural impact of the changes to come.
Having left Egypt and with their sights set on the promised land, the ancient Israelites were given divine orders to observe a shmita, or sabbatical, year once every seven years. “Six years you shall sow your land,” God instructs in the book of Exodus’s 23rd chapter, “and you shall gather in its produce. And the seventh year ye shall release it from work and abandon it, and the poor among your people eat. And what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat. So you shall deal with your vineyard and your olive grove.” The book of Deuteronomy adds an additional commandment during this time—the remission of debts. It is in the context of the cycle of the sabbatical year occurring every seven years, culminating in the 50th, or jubilee year, from which the Liberty Bell’s inscription to “proclaim liberty throughout the land” was first articulated.
In a measure meant to mirror the commandment of the Sabbath as the week’s day of rest, the sabbatical year put a pause on the country’s usual agricultural endeavors and inspired a collective concentration on bridging economic and social divides. The poor were invited to enjoy the fruits planted by the wealthy, who quite literally flung open the gates in welcome. Fields were given a much needed rest, allowing the replenishment of natural resources for the years ahead. The country’s citizenry, in turn, was challenged to consider how to positively spend the extra time that had been gained by the cessation of agricultural labor and by making the fruits of the land accessible to all. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine during the 1920s and early-1930s, taught that the year was to be focused on individuals utilizing this time to realize their “inner desire for goodness and justice, equality and calm, which God has planted within the nation.”
In contemporary Israel, political, legal and cultural collaboration seeks to achieve ancient ideals. Since the start of the Jewish new year in the early fall, farmers, government agencies and educators have sought to balance restrictive traditional mandates with the maintenance of productivity and economic sustainability of the country’s agricultural industry. In one remarkable example, known as otsar beit din, or “the storage of the court,” a group of farmers receive salaries and have their expenses covered (no profit is made) through sales of their produce organized by the country’s rabbinical authority. Various segments of society—religious and non-religious, including students from across the country—are invited to assist in this farming process, from physically working the land to distributing its products to the poor and homebound elderly. The impact of a nationally transformative project initiated from on high is taken as an opportunity to increase societal cohesion and address economic equality.
As Americans are soon to experience their own national rejuvenation project, the sabbatical year might serve as a guide.
As Americans are soon to experience their own national rejuvenation project, the sabbatical year might serve as a guide. Improved commuting time, faster shipping and shorter downloading time will no doubt improve individual lives. How the new mandates, and liberated time gained, can be leveraged for bridging societal divides remains subject to the imagination and the responsibility of those who dwell beneath the heavens. When we all gain our own small portion of a sabbatical year—those few extra minutes or hours—the challenge will be maximizing the newfound free time for positive social change.
Commenting on the infrastructure bill’s bipartisan support, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell remarked, “I think it was good for the country and I’m glad it passed.” While the country’s divided political leadership can find a measure of unity in the law’s promise, it is up to its citizens to manifest its full potential. Ultimately, while the reform’s success might officially be measured in bridges repaired, low-emission busses purchased and electric charging stations designed, its true transformative realization lies in how it inspires Americans of all affiliations to consider larger questions of national purpose. What it means to care for a land, how most sustainably to delight in its fecundity, and how greater efficiency can bridge economic and cultural divides—questions raised by the sabbatical year—prove to be both timeless and timely.
Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost and Deputy Director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University
Rabbi Dr. Ari Bergmann is CEO of Penso Advisors, LLC and the founder of Shenat HaSheva, which aims to bring the ideals of the ancient biblical sabbatical year to Israeli society.