I stared at a blank page for hours and nothing came out.
I’d exhausted my usual tricks. Sitting at a coffee shop with an iced latte. Turning off the wifi. Recording myself speaking instead of writing. Taking a walk. Cleaning. Scanning social media. Calling a friend. 34 jumping jacks. Cooking dinner. Listening to music while I worked. Not listening to music while I worked. Playing with my cat. Staring out the window. Reading the news, the Torah, the machzor.
At first I had excuses. There was so much happening. Emails pinging every moment. Calls from worried congregants. Logistical arrangements to a level I never imagined I’d be facing as a rabbi.
Then, last week, the excuses dried up. With my usual intention of work/life balance temporarily suspended until after Yom Kippur, as it is for most Jewish professionals, I found myself with substantial pockets of what could have— and should have— been sermon-writing time. And still, nothing.
It turns out that it’s hard to crystalize thoughts into sermons when I just keep thinking about the fact that my city flooded days ago, killing dozens and causing horrific damage across the region, and around the same time in Northern California, my 90-year-old grandma got evacuated because of fire. She’s fine, thank God, and so is the house where she raised my mom, but the reality of climate change is searing itself onto our landscape. It’s hard to crystalize thoughts into sermons when you’re someone of child-bearing age— someone who very much hopes to be a mother but believes that parenthood should be a choice— and the foundation of choice is shattered in Texas, setting a precedent that could eliminate choice nationwide. It’s hard to crystalize thoughts into sermons when the risk of breakthrough infection makes every choice about events to attend in person— or even a question of how long it’s safe to stay on a train or in a store— arduous. My brain is mush. My heart is broken. And I know I’m not the only one.
The truth is that, after this year, not a single one of us is really ok. Even those of us who are. And many of us are, right? I ask us to list our blessings, big and small, every week during Shabbat Services. The big stuff in my life is totally ok— better than ok, even. I feel so lucky to be healthy, to have financial security, to have meaningful work, to be in community with loving family and friends, to live in this city that I adore, to have good coffee available every day. This year brought me new joys. My sister and brother-in-law moved from San Francisco to the West Village, I moved around the corner from my old place to an apartment with views of trees and laundry in unit, I was honored as one of the New York Jewish Week’s “36 under 36”, I officiated weddings and B Mitzvahs, I met my wonderful colleagues and many of you here at West End in person, and I even got to spend 5 nights at a cabin upstate watching sunsets from a porch in the catskills.
I know that I’m not the only one who’s experienced blessings this year. Some of you celebrated weddings— your own, or your loved ones’. Some of you welcomed new children and grandchildren, great nieces and nephews. Some of you began new jobs that excited you. Some of you retired! Some of you published books, produced shows, studied languages, and began new fitness routines. Some of you reconnected with friends from long ago. Some of you traveled to reunite with loved ones, or to welcome your loved ones to visit you after many months apart.
And many of us— too many of us— experienced deep personal loss this year. Some of you are mourning parents, siblings, partners, and other loved ones. Some of you found yourselves without work. Some of you ended romantic relationships, or grew distant from once-close friends. Some of you couldn’t pay your rent, or make the mortgage. Some of you received horrible diagnoses that will impact the rest of your lives. Some of you got COVID yourselves. Some of you pushed off events you’d been looking forward to for years, or saw them through but in a way that fell short of what you’d imagined.
Whatever this year of 5781 brought for each of us personally, we are all living in a world that is not ok. We are all shouldering more than we can. We are feeling the cumulative weight of 18 months of pandemic, a weight that many of us imagined would lift when vaccinations arrived and that instead we’ve felt fall ever more heavily upon us with the rise of Delta this summer.
Last year at this time, just over 200,000 people had died of COVID-19 in the United States. This year, it’s nearly 700,000. Last year at this time, most of us knew full well that we had to cancel or make virtual events that we would normally hold in person. This year, in our terrible liminality of some vaccinated/some not, every decision feels rife with risks. Last year at this time, we were devastated, but we were also hopeful— if not for a return to “normalcy,” whatever that means, at least for a fresh start of sorts. This year? Most of us are just trying to get through the day. Yes, even if we are healthy. Even if we are financially secure. Even if we are professionally and personally fulfilled. We have been pushed too far and too hard for too long— all of us— and we need rest.
We come from a tradition that recognizes the need for that rest, in a micro sense with Shabbat as a weekly reminder of the value of pause, and in a macro sense every seven years with shm’ita.
Sh’mita is a biblical agrarian concept with massive contemporary implications. The basic notion is that, once every 7 years, one should let one’s land rest. For a year, instead of planting new seed, tending the crop, and harvesting what one has planted, one should eat what the land produces naturally and allow anyone else who passes through one’s land to do the same. The land and all that it’s produced become commonly-owned. And? During that same shmita year one should forgive all debts, releasing that which is owed. In other words, sh’mita is both an agricultural and sociological reset. The land rests, the people and animals that normally work the land rest, and all who are hungry may eat.
Now for those of us residing in and around New York, it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to connect to rules regarding farming, but after last week’s torrential rain— and climate catastrophe the world over that is only accelerating— all of us have been witness to the connection between how we treat the earth and how the earth treats us.
Our relentless thirst for resources has us on track to raise the earth’s surface temperature 1.5-3 degrees celsius, or more, in the next century, making many populated areas uninhabitable and making disasters like Hurricane Ida and the fires in California typical summer events. We human beings are terrible at letting the land rest, and our impact on the earth because of it is as undeniable as it is damning.
No matter what we do as individuals, much of the impetus regarding carbon footprint is on government and big business. Still, basic carbon-cutting habits can be a reminder of what matters, just as for some Jews eschewing bacon is a reminder of what matters. It’s because of climate change that, when we started 5781, I made a resolution to avoid purchasing new clothes for a year, except for undergarments and athletic wear.
Thrifting wasn’t new to me. I live in a neighborhood with many second-hand and vintage stores, and I’m privileged to wear sizes that most shops carry. But I’ve also been known, for convenience or because I needed something for work or sometimes just because I was having a bad day, to buy new clothing from fast-fashion companies. Clothing that was affordable because it was cheaply made, because of exploitation both of workers and of the earth’s natural resources, because it was desired in first world countries like this one and the cost to everyone else wasn’t factored in.
When I stopped buying new clothing, I was surprised by how little I missed it. When I needed clothes, I enjoyed seeing what others had donated or sold for consignment, trying on vintage dresses without sizes sewn in, checking the soles of old shoes. It was an adventure. I couldn’t look at the mannequins and pull the same clothes from the rack to copy the latest fashions. I couldn’t try two different sizes of the same garment to see which one fit better. In a way, I had to let the universe provide.
Which brings me back to shmita. Shmita largely fell out of practice after the fall of the 2nd temple when agriculture ceased to be a central part of Jewish life, and a bunch of rabbinic workarounds over the centuries reduced the potential impact of shmita to nearly nothing. Until, that is, quite recently. Even though Jews mostly weren’t observing shmita, we’ve always known when the shmita years fall. (Turns out it’s not that hard to count by 7s when you don’t even have to worry about a BCE/CE divide.)
I remember thinking before Rosh Hashanah a year ago that that year— 5781— felt like the year for sh’mita. Last year— a year we entered knowing that it would be some time before we could return to anything resembling life as we knew it— felt like the year to say “let’s slow down. Let’s do a little less. Let’s hold here and see what the universe provides.”
But if you count by 7s, you don’t reach 5781. You reach this year: 5782. Tonight, we enter the shmita year. And I was wrong. We didn’t need it last year. This year is definitely the one for sh’mita, and we are so lucky that the calendar agrees.
It might seem counterintuitive to look at a year when we’re hoping to be able to do more and say instead to ourselves, “let’s take a step back,” but I think that makes it all the more crucial.
I remember, when the pandemic began, a lot of talk of slowing down. In spring of 2020 many of us stopped commuting to work and school, canceled business and leisure travel, and found ourselves with time. Zoom was a miracle, allowing connection— almost like being in the same room— with friends and family, colleagues and neighbors, and of course with this very community of West End Synagogue. But then we took it too far, and even though we were spending a whole lot more time at home, the slow down never really happened.
I remember a clip I saw from an Israeli comedy show last spring. A man was on the phone with a friend, trying to set up a time for a Zoom lunch date. “זמן? יש לי זמן!’ Time? I’ve got time!” he said. But then, as he checked his calendar, it seemed that every moment was already booked with Zoom conferences, Zoom happy hours, Zoom game nights, Zoom Shabbat dinner. There was, in fact, no time to schedule another lunch. In a culture built around busyness and productivity, is it any wonder that many of us couldn’t handle the potential quiet and filled it as quickly as possible?
I don’t blame us for trying to keep busy. Especially with the pandemic. We were doing what we needed to do to take care of ourselves, to distract, to get through. And living in a capitalist society where, pandemic or not, the bottom line is the bottom line, made it difficult for those of us with jobs to slow down even if we wanted to.
But the truth is that, without fallow time, without time to regenerate, none of us can produce well. When we work land, over and over, without letting it rest, the nutrients in the soil become depleted. Athletes need rest days. Singers need vocal rest. Scholars need sabbaticals. And after 18 months of COVID compounded by everything else that this time has brought, we all need sh’mita.
I mentioned earlier that one of the highlights of this year for me was 5 nights in a cabin upstate. The cabin had wifi, but I never entered the password. Instead, I chose to be offline for my longest stretch in years. I chose to busy myself with reading for fun, walks, naps in the sun, cooking, exploration of nearby towns. And then, on my 3rd day, I opened the laptop I’d brought with me just in case, and I started to write. By the time I got back to Brooklyn 3 days later, I’d written 50 pages. Not because I was on a deadline. Not because of work. But because I wanted to. Because my creative energy had had a chance to refill itself. Because I hadn’t checked my email or gotten sucked into the news. I made space for my own body, mind, and spirit to offer up what they were able, and they more than delivered.
I often ask our community what more we can do for others— and I’ll be doing some of that on Yom Kippur. But today I want to ask you today what less you can do. What can you let lie fallow as we enter this shmita year? In what parts of your life can you trust yourself to receive? Maybe it’s letting yourself keep on those pounds you gained during COVID. Maybe it’s not rushing to reschedule that trip you put off— at least not yet. Maybe it’s deciding that, even though you’re interested in taking that pottery class or joining that tennis club, it might be worthwhile this year— after the horrible time we’ve had— to give yourself a few extra hours at home every week.
I’m not saying that doing less will be easy. I’ll be honest. Even as I’m closing this drash right now, I feel the pressure of a society that tells me my efforts are never enough— that this very sermon should be better, should be shorter or longer, should be deeper or more accessible, should be delivered more compellingly. A part of me believes that I am not worthy of rest. The shmita year is a charge to me, and to all of us, to challenge the pressure to “be useful” infusing the very air around us.
The world we knew is never coming back. Not in the way it was before. The rest of our lives will be “post-pandemic.” So what kind of world renewed do we hope to enter? I hope to enter a world this shmita year, with each of you, in which we release our expectations. I hope that this year we can remind one another to do less and listen when others remind us. I’ll certainly need those reminders! And I hope that we can forgive ourselves when we do too much, knowing that we get this full year of release— the literal meaning of shmita. This year, I invite us to watch what grows when we take a conscious step back, take a deep breath, and let the sweetness of life find us in its own time and in its own way.
Shanah Tovah u’metukah. May you have a good, sweet, and restful year.
(This piece was adapted from a Rosh Hashanah 5782 drash given by Rabbi Emily Cohen at West End Synagogue in New York, NY on September 7, 2021).