Even Dirt Gets to Rest (Pandemic Shmitah)

In this week’s parsha, Behar-Bechukotai, G!D tells the Israelites that when they arrived in the Land of Israel, they must allow the land to rest once every seven years. All of us around the world, Jewish and not, are now living this Shmitah (“release” on the 7th year) experience during the pandemic.

It must have seemed completely crazy to the ancient farmers who heard this. They probably thought: How can we just let the land remain uncultivated? What will we have to eat?

And three months ago, if someone said to you or me that we must give the land/ the earth/ the sky / the environment a rest for a few months, maybe a year, wouldn’t we have thought they were one of those “environmental nutcases?”

But here we are in the era of COVID-19. And the earth is resting. The sky is clearer. The water is cleaner. It is a Sabbath for the Land, as in Biblical days.

The Torah says that the Land of Israel should have a Shabbat just like the People of Israel are commanded to have a Shabbat. (Perhaps the connective point is that we are both holy to G!D.)

And if Land needs to rest, all the more so do we, human beings, need to rest! That’s one of the blessings of this virus. Finally, we see parents bike-riding with their children, spouses taking long walks together, and everyone forced to stop all the busyness because there’s literally nowhere to go.

Before the pandemic, we all tried to impress each other with how busy we were at every moment, how much we accomplished and how hard we worked. And due to smart phones, we were available 24/7 and we could be in touch with the world 24/7 too.

Just as the earth is not designed for this level of activity (at least the polluting kind), neither are human beings.

The levels of stress, anxiety and suicides in this country are rising every year. Biologically, these are cries of distress from our deepest selves.

What can we do? We don’t want to go back to a pre-technological age. And yet, we cannot sustain the kind of lives we’ve been living.

Lo and behold, the Jewish tradition has an answer—Shabbat! One day a week to recharge, to rest, to reconnect with oneself, family and friends.

Now if you haven’t ever observed Shabbat and don’t do so now, the idea of a 24 hour Shabbat might sound seriously extreme. So take it slowly.

Give yourself a one hour Shabbat at first. Every Friday night or Saturday, find one hour and do something restorative that does not emit blue light! Meaning it doesn’t involve technology. And something that you find restful, not a chore, and not a “responsibility.” Then after you get used to an hour, try for two.

But note, you must guard this time and make it holy for yourself (and for G!D). Your yetzer hara/ baser instincts/ id/ monkey mind will find a million reasons why you can’t do it and shouldn’t do it and even make you feel guilty for not checking things off your to-do list during that time.

I know because I fight it to this day.

When I got shingles at the age of fifty, I was in shock. “I thought that was for older people?” I told the doctor. “Are you under a lot of stress?” he asked. If I weren’t in enormous pain, I would have laughed out loud. “Stress—thou art my middle name!” I wanted to reply.

“Go home and do nothing for a week” he told me. And I literally and immediately felt… total panic. Because I didn’t know how. Do nothing. How do I do that?!?

As painful as it was, shingles changed my life, oddly for the better. Because I learned how to do nothing. I have a great teacher in my Shabbat-loving husband. And I’ve had great teachers through IJS, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, where I learned mindfulness meditation.

Some of you know that I’ve gone on silent retreats for a week at a time in order to be certified as a Jewish meditation and mindfulness teacher.

When I first began meditating, the idea of a week-long totally silent retreat (the teachers can talk but students can’t, though we can sing and pray at the appropriate times) sounded completely impossible. But I did it. Over and over. And after a while, like most things one practices, it became less difficult and more enjoyable.

Once you get used to them and learn to “be” in the world differently, a silent retreat is like a warm, fuzzy blanket that you wrap yourself inside. So relaxing. Such a wonderful gift—nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be. Just me and my breathing.

If meditation or mindfulness isn’t your thing, no worries. But it does provide, at the most stressful points in your day, a moment for you to have a bit of Shabbat.

And even if you do meditate or are practicing mindfulness, extending that time to many more hours or an entire day (a day sanctioned/ sanctified for it) would bring even more benefits.

If we’ve learned anything from this enforced quarantine it is that we – humans and the environment in which we live-- need a break from all the busyness. We need time to slow down and rest.

On Shabbat, we return to our essence. We are valuable people even if we “accomplish” nothing on our to-do list. Perhaps this is the reason we are called Human BE-ings, rather than Human DO-ings. 

Once the world starts up again, and it will (in fits and starts), and we go back to “normal,” please remember that even dirt gets to rest once in a while, so why not you?!? 

If you are interested in learning how to practice mindfulness meditation, please join the FREE class I lead through CAJE’s Department of Adult Learning and Growth: https://caje-miami.org/adults/online/

Shabbat Shalom

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