Published in Shma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas on 12/27/2014
Imagine that you’re a wealthy landowner in ancient Israel. You know the shmita (sabbatical) year is coming and what’s required: You must stop planting and let your land lie fallow for the year. You must forego a year of profit. Not only that: Over the past few years, you have lent money to your poor neighbors and now you must forgive their debts so that your neighbors can also let their lands lie fallow. If they were obligated to pay you back, they would not be able to participate. These laws are good for the fertility of the land and for your neighbor’s livelihood and dignity. But observing shmita, and putting the community’s needs ahead of your own, requires a sacrifice from you. Would you do it?
Fast forward to today: You live in one of the world’s richest countries and you depend on cheap energy extracted from the earth for your livelihood and your lifestyle. In neighboring countries, though, people are poor. They use little energy and they have little money to invest in new infrastructure. Will you try to use energy more efficiently? Will you invest in renewable energy sources that don’t damage the earth? If you will, further warming of the atmosphere will be prevented. Your neighbors, more vulnerable than you because of their poverty, will be protected from rising seas, heat waves, and drought. But caring for their lives requires a sacrifice from you. Will you do it?
Shmita is the Torah’s prescription for environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Today, climate change is the biggest threat to sustainability. Although the scale of the problems brought on by climate change were unimaginable in the time of the Torah, shmita addressed certain maladies of human society that have not gone away and that now threaten us with self-destruction. As in ancient times, self-interest, greed, short-term thinking, and unsustainable exploitation of people and the earth endanger our existence. Climate change is not a scientific or technical problem. The science is clear and the solutions are ready; it is an ethical problem. Will we, who have benefited from the burning of fossil fuels, take responsibility for the damage and make it right? There are at least three lessons we can learn from shmita.
First, shmita forces us to acknowledge that human existence depends on our relationship to the earth. In ancient times, almost everyone was a subsistence farmer. Agriculture depleted the fertility of the land and, so, it had to be limited. Today, we are all dependent on energy. And our energy system is unsustainable. The mining and burning of fossil fuels is poisoning fresh water, acidifying the ocean, warming the atmosphere, and disrupting the climate. Putting a complete stop to this destructive system seems impossible, just as it must have seemed impossible to our ancestors to stop planting for the shmita year. Shmita challenges us to look beyond the short-term hardship and imagine the future we can create if we act boldly to right this wrong.
Second, shmita teaches us that caring for the earth and caring for people are inseparable. Letting the land lie fallow cannot happen without also forgiving people their debts; in order for all to participate in shmita, the poor cannot be indebted to the wealthy. Those who have more have to make sure that everyone’s needs are met. Today, it is only fair that we who have benefited the most must take the largest responsibility for addressing the climate crisis. Individually, we can reduce our own energy use, purchase electricity from renewable energy suppliers, stop investing in fossil fuel corporations, and vote for leaders who will push for change. As nations, the United States and other wealthy countries must enact ambitious policies to replace energy from coal, oil, and gas, with solar and wind.
Finally, shmita sets a deadline for action. When the seventh year arrives, it has to be observed. Shmita teaches us that we cannot delay taking action until it is convenient or until we are convinced that there is no other choice. Fulfilling our ethical responsibility is not optional. Even if it seems imprudent or extreme, every seven years we must rededicate ourselves to building a sustainable society in harmony with the earth.
Do we really need this deadline? We certainly do. The first congressional hearings on climate change were held in 1988. The Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty that the United States refused to ratify due to pressure from self-interested industries, was adopted in 1997. The United States has had more than 25 years to commit to stop burning fossil fuels and accelerate the transition to renewable energy, but it has not made nearly enough progress. Although individual cities and states are taking action, there is still no progress in Congress. Fossil fuel companies that care only for profits continue to confuse the public by claiming that there is no need to move away from fossil fuels and that renewable energy technologies are not ready. They hope to extract all of the fossil fuels they have in their reserves.
Each of us has benefited from the burning of fossil fuels that is harming the atmosphere. Each of us has the power to help prevent the worst projections of climate change. Now is the time to take action. The Torah’s wisdom is timeless. And human beings rise to the occasion when we are saddled with an intractable deadline. That’s why we need shmita.