Shmita Culture & Releasing Ourselves From Urgency

The Sabbatical year is upon us!

18 months ago as the realities of the pandemic set in, a lot of folks were talking about how this would be a society-wide opportunity to slow down. What happened?

A Culture of Urgency

Earlier this week I posted what I think is so far my most popular tweet ever:

I also shared it, along with some follow-up commentary, on my Facebook and Instagram pages.

As we approach yet another wave of pandemic life, this message *really* resonated with folks. Clearly we are exhausted and stretched beyond thin.

18 months ago as the realities of the pandemic set in, a lot of folks were talking about how this would be a society-wide opportunity to slow down, focus on the important stuff, spend more time with family and less time in the grind of work.

And yet for so many the experience has been the opposite — more meetings, more working hours, more programs; less down time, less relationship building, less opportunity to settle into deep work space as we jumped from zoom meeting to zoom panel to zoom happy hour — finally trying to unwind at the end of the day with our eyes watching some Netflix on the screen and our thumbs scrolling our social media feeds before crashing into bed to do it all again.

Throw kids into the mix and … whew.

Like I said, exhausting.

To be clear — tons of empathy to everyone who has to cancel or change programs, which is so hard and often heartbreaking after so much energy and labor has gone into creating them. I feel you and see you! And clearly there is need and value for programming, both in person and online, especially that which supports us, builds connection, helps educate, and pushes social change.

Speaking from the non-profit leader side, though, the *pressure* to continue producing is immense — new programs, new resources, new participant growth metrics, diversified revenue streams, evidence of success … the list goes on. What happened to slowing down?

We are stuck in a society-wide culture of urgency.

Shmita — The Sabbatical Year

Shmita is the sabbatical year, and the Hebrew word most literally translates to "release."

The two primary biblical elements of Shmita are:

1 — Rest the land, and in effect release the land of ownership. Take agricultural land out of annual production. In addition to accessing food stored over the prior six years, harvesting of perennial crops, wild forage, and any annuals that come up on their own is allowed, but (similar to manna in the Sinai Wilderness post-Exodus) one is only supposed to gather what they need in small amounts, rather than stockpile. Individual ownership is released such that all land becomes owned via the collective commons — which means that anyone can move through and gather / forage on any land because it's all public.

2 — Release debts. Remaining amounts from unpaid debts from the prior six years are cancelled.

Pretty rad.

The agricultural and economic applications of Shmita are, conceptually, quite simple: stop farming the land for a year; cancel debt.


We know from sustainable farming methods that allowing fields to fallow — usually as part of an overall crop rotation — is critical for sustaining the health and quality of the soil.

But Shmita goes even further. Not only is it not just one field but all agricultural land, the reliance on perennials implies a robust system of perennial crop cultivation over the prior six years and beyond — after all, you typically don’t get a good crop (or even any in some cases) from a newly planted perennial.

Likewise, one would be hard pressed to simply press pause for a year without adequately preparing for it in the six years between Shmita years.

Which means that if you’re observing Shmita, it’s actually not just something you do for one year. It’s something that impacts the entire nature and structure of a society.

Most of us are not farmers. So how else might we observe Shmita or uphold a Shmita ethic both individually and collectively?

Here are a few compelling offerings from some friends:

There’s a lot more out there and this conversation is both already very active and I imagine will only continue to be so as we enter the Shmita year itself.

How Now?

As I think about Shmita both personally and organizationally, two essential points feel emergent:1

The Collective — it's an opportunity to put attention, energy, and resources into the root systems of our work, to step back from the constant grind of annual production (urgency cycles) and into perennial culture (relationship building, systems change, etc).

Urgency culture emphasizes production above all else, as fast as possible. We can draw some very directly lines between urgency culture, white supremacy, capitalism, and exploitation of land and people for power and profit.

It’s the prevailing culture of our society.

Which means that pushing into perennial Shmita culture is counter-cultural. It looks like caring for self, for community (both “our people” and others), for nature. It looks like balancing the act of taking and holding so that instead of hoarding resource from a place of fear, mistrust, and anxiety, we’re recalibrating to take only what we need. It requires trust and a collective mindset, knowing that in fact we have everything we need for all people to thrive — but the distribution is horribly inequitable.

It means rethinking and releasing our relationship to private ownership — at least in part, if not necessarily in full — in favor of a collective sense of communal and ecological health and wellbeing.

It means rethinking our relationship to land, ownership, and colonialism. Dedicated time, resource, and energy towards restoring the relationships between indigenous communities and the lands that have been stolen from them; and the same towards racial justice for those who were stolen from their land, whose bodies were enslaved and traumatized generation after generation.

Yes, Shmita is about rest and release. We are all exhausted. We all deserve a break.

And, let those of us for whom it applies be careful not to allow ourselves to slip into the apathy of the privileged. Shmita is at least as much about restoration and healing as it is about rest.

The Personal — what are the behaviors and mindsets from the last six years, and maybe especially the last eighteen months of pandemic, that we are ready to let go of? Perhaps these are things that had a time and place, coping mechanisms that served us well to get through challenging times, relationships that had their moment, but are no longer serving us in the way they used to. Perhaps they are toxic people or environments that we’ve long struggled to release ourselves from. Perhaps they are misplaced or unrealistic expectations that we can manage differently.

The last two years have been full of significant personal and professional transitions for my family and me. And that mindset of transition, of “I’m doing this thing right now, which is different that what I might otherwise do, so that I can just get through this time,” has been ever-present. A lot of that was incredibly valuable — we’re overall in a good place, and those choices had impact on getting us here.

And, a lot of those choices and behaviors are not the kind of thing that will continue to set me up for long term health, success, or sustainability if I continue them.

So, personally, I’m letting go of two things in this vein:

  1. Shame — I know I’m not alone in looking back and feeling “not proud” of some of the things that got away from me. Like going to the gym regularly, getting enough rest, staying really organized. But holding onto shame around these things is not helpful. So I’m trying to release that moving forward.

  2. And, the above said, I’m also ready to let go of that which is no longer serving me well now that I’m in a different place. It had its role, which I honor and appreciate. And, it’s time to let go.

In symbolism almost too on the nose, I haven’t gotten a haircut in over two years — literally since before we moved to Cleveland. At first it was pandemic caution, and then just good old procrastination. So my hair is *really* long now (it was already long before).

I like my long hair. I’m not cutting it all off. But it’s time for a good trim. So last week, with a little pep talk from my coach Val, I scheduled a haircut. Of course, the next available appointment was for one of the days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, ten of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. So this will very literally be a Shmita release — letting go of the parts that have gotten a little too long, a little heavy, frayed at the ends, and tougher to manage than is needed.

As we take steps away from the things associated with the first six years of the cycle — in the sense of “release” and of letting go — we must also necessarily ask ourselves what are we stepping into and taking hold of. For me, that’s time with my family, enjoying the neighborhood we moved into this past year when we bought our first house ever, leaning into the collective sense of commons, right here and in the surrounding areas, that was a big draw for us to move here.

It’s eating well, moving my body more, implementing more regular rhythm and structure into my daily life. Nourishing the roots and tending to the soil so that the full being can stay healthy.

It’s continuing to learn and grow in my antiracism practice, striving to support and create spaces for healing, holding and building trust in the collective common

That’s me.

How about you?


Thanks to April Baskin whose recent Facebook post catalyzed some of these thoughts!