Take a Sabbatical!


The Torah portion this week calls for keeping the sabbatical year, every seventh year, in which we give the land (and ourselves) a rest. Why? And how in our busy, modern lives, in which our work extends well beyond the fields, could we possibly experience the meaning of this guidance?

As with the weekly Sabbath, we are given time intermittently during the years to “turn the machine off,” as if to say we aren’t to be devoted to the machine and what it produces. So long as the machine runs ceaselessly, our instinct tempts us to venerate, even worship, those material things or selfish interests that go far beyond the rightful benefits of our work. This excess can be due to a sort of obsession with our acquisitions and accretions, with our acting as if we’re lords of the earth.

Don’t we need reminders and experiences that teach that we are mere stewards of what we possess and that God is truly the owner?

This guidance says, yes. We serve God. It’s not all about us or for us. Further, we tend to treat others more lovingly, more fairly, more justly, more mercifully when we see ourselves as servants of God rather than master unto ourselves.

We remember also that it was God Who created the earth. We celebrate a sabbath of years, as well as each week. By separating this time, we cherish the same principles – respect for and honor of God, rest for ourselves and that part of God’s creation under our purview, and a dedication of time for holy purposes.

As we have studied, God leads us to holiness, in large part, to cause us to show a greater heed to loving kindness and compassion, as against domination, greed, over-interest in, and undue pressure for, material gain.

Could we live out a sort of sabbatical year in our own time and place?

While it’s unlikely that many of us could or would literally take a sabbatical year of the sort described in the Bible, we could fashion experiences that bring its meaning to our lives. For instance, we could slow down our commercial or other acquisitive activity, rest ourselves and “the land,” and puncture any budding mania we may feel to overdo our commitment to growing material assets.

In its place, we could devote time to study, service, spiritual orientation, teaching and learning, re-acclimating ourselves to the values we hold dearest, the truths and virtues God has taught and expects of us. Perhaps refreshed and re-dedicated to service of God and our fellows, we would come back to more normal time out of this designated time ready to live more fully in the Way God has given us.


The Place of the Golden Rule

Have you ever wondered where the Golden Rule is found in the Bible? Do you know? Guess!

How many guessed, Leviticus, right in the middle of Leviticus?

How can that be? Yes, it’s here, in the midst of all the rules about sacrifices in the ancient Temple and many of the processes by which the priests were to administer matters in sacred space.

Further, as some know, the Golden Rule appears in a portion called Kedoshim, which indicates to us it’s located in text that is centrally about holiness.

It certainly makes sense that a text that teaches about conduct in sacred space would involve a discussion of holiness.

But what is somewhat surprising as well as extraordinarily powerful is what the Bible wants us to know most about holiness.

Is it about some supernatural or mystical way of being? Is it mostly about some sort of reverence and awe toward the priests or other-wordly beings or even some sort of reverie toward God?

I think not.

Yes, God calls us to draw near in this space. God asks us to bring offerings to facilitate our drawing near the Divine. God asks us to be holy for our God is holy. But the purpose of doing so is not for some esoteric or mystical reason. God draws us near, mainly to challenge us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We’re holy as God is holy when we care for the poor by leaving the gleanings of the field and the corners for them.

We’re holy when we do not steal from or deal falsely with others.

We’re holy when we pay the day laborer before night falls.

We’re holy when we’re righteous in judgment of others.

We’re holy when we defend the victims of crime.

We’re holy when we avoid bearing tales about others.

We’re holy when we refrain from bearing grudges.

Indeed, we’re holy when we love others as ourselves.

Unlike the gods of many ancient religions, our God is less interested in arbitrary expectations of us and our showing obeisance in special places to high priests. We’re called to God’s service, yes, but the holiness in doing so is principally manifested through serving and loving others.

What Does Self-Denial Mean in the Bible?

Achrei Mot, this week’s Torah portion, is largely about Yom Kippur, the holiday that is generally deemed the holiest day of the Jewish year. We are beckoned by our covenant to serve God, to live as God expects, and to come and dwell near God. This day is a day for return, a day that we dedicate to turning from waywardness and back to God, a day calling for at-One-ment.

What is the main requirement of Yom Kippur, and what is its purpose?

The principal requirement is self-denial, which is mainly manifested through fasting for the day. It also includes prayer and meditation, and refraining from other pleasures.

At a deeper level, what does “self denial” require of us? I want to make the case that the denial of self goes to “giving up ground,” metaphorically, giving back, with regret, atonement, and change, what we’ve inappropriately expropriated from God and others in how we’ve lived.

As to God, we expropriate the ground God has given us in our lives when we stray to the worship of other forces, loss of faith, despair, loss of hope, diminished integrity or wholeness, loss of belief in the ultimate triumph of good or at least our commitment to the good.

We’ve been created to be God’s partners in building the world. God values justice, righteousness, fairness, and mercy; and, so, God wants and expects us to value these things as well, especially in our direct encounter with others in our lives. Spreading God’s sovereignty on earth and serving God in the world require that we act out of love of God and love for our fellows. When we act against these expectations, we expropriate for other ends the time and space God has given us to pursue these ends.

Self-denial may ritually be acted out in fasting on the day, but isn’t the important part that we pull back on our ego, on our self-interest, on our having acted or taken in a way that goes beyond what’s right or ours? The denial that is expected of us, I would suggest, is to give up from what we’ve wrongfully done, first with each other, and then we can turn back and be restored to our God.