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Sabbatical Year

My sister (Nicole Auerbach) is a rabbinical student. She wrote an amazing sermon on the importance of rest. I felt it was EXTREMELY relevant to the work we do here. Check it.

How Will You Spend Your Sabbatical?

by Nicole Auerbach

I.

I don’t know about you, but I could really use a sabbatical. Can you imagine? A whole year to stop doing the work that makes up your waking hours? What would you do with all that time? Would you reach for your list of “Maybe Someday” projects that never seem to get done? Take up yoga? Travel? Learn a language? Finally get enough sleep?

Take a moment, and close your eyes, and think about what it would feel like to be granted a year off.

Would you feel free?

Would you feel anxious about all the things that would not get done?

Would you feel useless?

Would you feel pressure to finally join a gym?

You can open your eyes.

Today, of course, is Rosh Hashanah, the first day of a new year according to the Jewish calendar. But this is no ordinary year. Knowingly or not, prepared or not, we have just entered a Sabbatical Year – the final year in a seven year cycle that calls upon us to stop our normal patterns of productivity, and to pause to appreciate what happens when we stop working so hard.

In Leviticus[1], we are told that when Moses was on Mount Sinai, God spoke to him and said, “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: ‘When you enter the land that I assign you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of Adonai. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year, the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of Adonai. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vine; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its Sabbath will produce.” So for six years, the Israelites were supposed to work the land, but in the seventh year, they were to sit back and see what the earth produced on its own.

That sounds great, right? But what were they supposed to eat? The Israelites were not a bunch of retired bankers who moved to the Hudson valley and started hobby farms in their retirement – presumably they actually needed to farm in order to sustain themselves. God addresses this question as well. God tells Moses [25:18]: “You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep my rules, that you may live upon the land in security; the land shall yield its fruit and you will eat to satisfaction. . . . And should you ask ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, when its crops come in.”

The Sabbatical Year is Shabbat brought to scale. Instead of merely pausing from work one day out of seven, the Sabbatical Year calls upon the entire community to stop for an entire year, to see what happens, with faith in God’s promise that if they do so, they will nonetheless be able to sustain themselves and eat until they are satisfied.

II.

Technically, the laws of the Sabbatical year only apply within the land of Israel. So for hundreds of years, when the land of Israel was without an organized Jewish community, the whole idea of a sabbatical year was hypothetical. When Jews began to return to Israel and to engage in agriculture, the question became: how do we observe this commandment without destroying the foundations of the economic system? Every seven years, this results in a collective soul-searching, with rabbis and politicians asking whether Israel is yet at a point of economic stability that the sabbatical year could be fully observed. This year, some 3000 farmers will observe the sabbatical, supported by the government and by non-profit organizations.

One of the remarkable things about having a functioning Jewish state in the land of Israel is that we get to see how a modern nation can seek to live out Jewish values. Every seven years, the people of Israel must decide to what extent they will subsidize farmers who follow the laws of the Sabbatical year. They must grapple with how commandments that were given to a nation of would-be subsistence farmers have to do with a modern, largely urban, state. They must confront the reality of their dependence on non-Jews to meet their basic needs. Can you imagine if the United States engaged in the same sort of soul-searching with respect to farm policy every seven years? If the default during those years was that crops would go unharvested and that we would have to work together to make sure all were fed and the nation stayed afloat? The law of the Sabbatical Year is a radical call for communal action and reckoning, and every seven years, we see that reckoning play out, for better or worse, in Israel, as the parliament tries to square the commandment given at Sinai with the realities of modern agricultural policy.

III.

But we are not in Israel. And you are not farmers. So why am I telling you all this?

Because I believe that as serious, committed Reform Jews, we have the obligation to find meaning in Torah. And I believe that most of us are in desperate need of a Sabbatical year. “As [the Sabbatical Year] hints,” suggests Rabbi Jeremy Benstein, “people are indeed like the land, in ways that are more obvious in the modern world: For both, when overwork leads to exhaustion, we engineer continued “vitality” not with true renewal, but with chemicals.” We are a society running on fumes, whether they be industrial fertilizer or the caffeine in our coffee. “Just as silence is an integral part of speech,” he suggests, “punctuated periods of fallowness are crucial for guaranteeing continued fertility.”

Or, as Rabbi David Ingber, puts it: “Something miraculous happens when we stop. We get to experience the power that nature knows called dormancy. . . . There are seeds inside each and every one of us, inside this culture that cannot emerge because we do not know that “resting does not mean disappearing.”

There is more and more evidence that in our lives as in the lives of our crops, periodic rest and renewal is not a luxury, but is essential to productivity. A researcher at the University of California found that a 60-90 minute nap improved memory test results as much as did a full night’s sleep. And in 2006, Ernst & Young found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation its employees took, their year-end performance ratings improved by 8 percent.

Why is this? Because our brains are not designed to be on-task at all times. In fact, researchers have found that there are 2 major types of attention: task-positive and task-negative. And they act like a see-saw: when one is active, the other is not. Task-positive attention is at work when we’re focused on a task. The task-negative one is our “daydreaming” mode. And it’s the task-negative mode that is responsible for our greatest insights and creativity. It’s why we have our best ideas in the shower, or walking the dog. And it’s only able to function when we take a break from getting things done. As one researcher explained: the focus of the task-positive side of our attentional system allowed us to harness fire, build the pyramids, develop penicillin, and engage in a number of other crowning achievements that take sustained work and attention. But the insight for those achievements probably came to us when we were in our daydreaming state. And our hours on Facebook don’t count.

We all know this, on some level. And in fact, the idea of regular periods of rest is one of Judaism’s great gifts to the world, in the form of Shabbat. Without Shabbat, there would be no modern weekends, after all. And the brilliance of Shabbat is that our tradition does not tell us to stop when our work is done. We stop because it is Shabbat. Because if we waited until our work was done, we would never stop.[2] We stop because we trust that the world will go on even without our effort. And when it does, it is such a relief.

IV.

So what are we to do with this Sabbatical Year? We cannot all just stop working. Even if we were all farmers, observing that kind of Sabbatical requires societal commitment and planning that we do not have at our disposal. But what if we took a year off from self-improvement? What if, just as the Israelites were told not to plant anything new, or prune their vines to make them more productive, we took a year off from taking on extra projects, from resolving to change ourselves. What if this were a year of saying no? Let someone else be class parent. Refrain from joining Weight Watchers. Don’t go to unnecessary conferences. Don’t make brownies for the bake sale, or try to learn French.

What if we left some fallow space in our lives? What dormant seeds of ideas might germinate? What fruit would our daydreams produce?

Under the traditional laws of the Sabbatical Year, while we are not permitted to actively cultivate crops, we are allowed to eat anything that grows wild. I imagine that during the Sabbatical Year, the Israelites spent more time venturing out past their fields, on the lookout for what they might find growing of its own accord. What if we did the same? What if this were a year of wandering further afield, and taking notice of what we find? I mean this both literally – taking the time to see what is around us – and figuratively. What if instead of Facebook, we took the time to read things that had nothing to do with our work or hobbies. What new ideas might we find already exist in the world?

At the end of such a year, we might find that the world has survived without our extra busy-ness. We might find that we are satisfied. For that is God’s promise when God decrees the Sabbatical Year. While at first reading, it appears that God promises a three-fold yield to sustain the Israelites during the Sabbatical year, a closer look suggests that is not so. The text states that if we observe the Sabbatical Year, “the land shall yield its fruit and you will eat “LaSava” – to the point of being satisfied.” It is unclear whether the amount of fruit will be equal to that in other years. What is promised is not abundance, but satisfaction. Likewise, when addressing the question of what the Israelites will eat during the eighth year, God promises a crop “sufficient for three years.” Not three times the usual crop. But a crop that will be enough. A crop that will bring satisfaction.

That is the promise of the Sabbatical Year. If we can stop working so hard, we might just find that what we need to sustain us is already here, and that what we have is enough.


[1] [25:1]

[2] [Credit: David Ingber].