Shmita and the Power of Imagination
In his book To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual, Jonathan Z. Smith writes, “Ritual is, above all, an assertion of difference…a means of performing the way things ought to be in conscious tension with the way things are.” Rituals help us to acknowledge the aspects of our world that we desire to change.
Through the creation and performance of rituals, we direct our creative energy towards imagining the world as it could be. These rituals create the scaffolding for us to live—even if only for a moment—as if the world we imagine is already here
In Jewish tradition, the observance of the Shmita (sabbatical) year is such a ritual. The instructions for Shmita observation occur three times in the Torah. These passages include directives that, for one year out of every seven, we are to abstain from planting our fields, allow the land to rest, and welcome the poor of our communities to come and eat from what is ours. In addition, all debts are to be forgiven and those who lack are to be given all that they need.
Once every seven years we are to live, as the theologian and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, in “…a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” The Shmita year is one of equalization where both land and humans rest, where both rich and poor are satisfied, and where we acknowledge that land, money and material possessions are not fully ours, but, ultimately, belong to God.
The ritual of observing the Shmita year affords us an opportunity to live as if. By following the laws of Shmita we experience what it would be like to live in a world where everyone’s needs were taken care of and no one went hungry, where we respected the land as a living being deserving of rest, where resources were shared equally, and where we yielded to a power beyond our own needs and desires.
Even more powerfully, this experience of the world as it could be is a visceral, embodied practice that serves to activate our imagination to consider our actions and intentions during the other six years. During Shmita we not only have the space to ask ourselves questions about our ultimate goals and values, but we also are immersed in the experience of another way of living. Shmita is a practice of, as Smith wrote, “…performing the way things ought to be in conscious tension to the way things are.”
The possibilities of what might arise from the observance of Shmita are endless. What changes when those of diverse social and economic strata come into relationship with one another? How does our relationship to the land change when we exist alongside it rather than working it? What begins to fill our time when we are no longer occupied with our daily toil? What shifts for us emotionally and spiritually when we forgive a debt, or when our debt is forgiven?
It would be impossible to observe Shmita one year out of every seven and have the other six years remain unchanged. The ritual of Shmita creates an island in time where we live according to our highest—and most difficult to achieve—values. Then, slowly, over time, we practice integrating those values into the rest of our lives. It is only through the actual experience of what living this way feels like that the frozen ground around our well-trodden ways, habitual patterns, and hardened ideas can begin to thaw and new ways of being can emerge.
Observance of the Shmita year allows for endless possibilities. When we are forced to ask the question “How else could we live?” the door to our imagination—and to our hearts—is opened. As Albert Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there will ever be to know and understand.” While there is much that we know and understand about our world, there is infinitely more that lies beyond what we cognitively understand today. The ritual of Shmita ensures that we loosen the shackles of our own ideas of how life must be lived, and invite in the freshness and hope of new possibilities.
As the author Arundhati Roy so eloquently said, “another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” The ritual of Shmita gives us the strength to believe that there are alternative ways to live other than how we are living, and allows us to get still enough to sense the glimmers of these new ways shining through our current reality.
 Smith, Jonathan Z. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) 109.
 Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:1-6; Deuteronomy 15:1-8.
 Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951) 3.
 Einstein, Albert. Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms (New York: Covici-Friede, Inc, 1931), 97.