Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Land Gets a Sabbath

by Susan Weinberg

Normally our lab meetings begin with hugs and fond hellos. This meeting was one we never could have anticipated when we began this year. In light of COVID-19, we joined with many organizations across our community in venturing into the safety of cyberspace where Meryll Page led us in a discussion of Jewish text and the environment.

We began our discussion with a much-needed reflection on the requirement to stay at home and pause much of our activity. We all are experiencing some disorientation as we reframe our routines and become more self-sufficient in how we perform them. Instead of going to the gym, we walk in our neighborhoods, fashioning exercise out of what we can manage independently. Even meeting basic needs like going to the grocery store becomes potentially treacherous. Our world shrinks and yet intensifies as it is distilled into a smaller space.

It was noted that the very technology that has often separated us the most, is now our life raft. Some commented on the increased efforts to connect with each other in whatever way we can and reflected on the kindness of people to each other. We are all united by crisis.

Yet even though we share the same seas, some of us bob around in rowboats, others in yachts. We noted that many of us who have more privilege, more economic security, can weather these  times with greater ease and use this pause in our life to reflect on our priorities, to savor the time to consider creative efforts and refocus our energies. There are many who face food insecurity, who live on the edge in terms of housing and income, for whom this disruption brings with it, extreme uncertainty.

Those with children at home literally have them at home 24/7 which brings its own unique challenges. Older participants often are separated from children and grandchildren or worry about older parents who need their support.

When we spoke of this pause, I heard echoes. Just as I often search the Hebrew Bible for a key word, I searched past blogs for patterns, looking for pauses and spaces in our discussions. There it was when we spoke of Kaballah and needing to create space to make room for the unknown. We once spoke of the symbol “selah” which means pause and which some believe derives from the root for “to hang” meaning to weigh. This too is a time of weighing as we consider our Interconnectedness to others. And we spoke of liminality, the space in between, the twilight between day and night.

This time does indeed feel weighty, this pause significant. It is a liminal space and we are on a threshold that has the potential to change us and to change our country and our world. What form that will take remains to be seen.

We moved into sketching our response to the term halakha which means legal framework. I thought of the 613 rules that make up halakha, the many restrictions, some of which may no longer seem meaningful to our lives today. I thought of fences and constraints.  Meryll directed our attention to the Source Sheet ( A Jewish Legal Framework for Environmentalism handouts) which outlines many of the mitzvot. We broke into small groups to discuss them and consider how the laws seek to manage humans within the natural environment. There was a lot of focus on trees, especially fruit-bearing ones which we were to preserve even in the midst of war. We were instructed to let the fields rest in the seventh year and to open them to the needy. The land was to have a Sabbath of its own. And we were instructed that land must not be sold forever for we are tenants on the land of God. We are told that we are to provide redemption of the land.
Aimee Orkin's reflections on Sabbath and Sabbatical

We discussed the fact that when we stay in our homes, the land does in fact get a Sabbath. During the China shutdown, smog levels decreased by 25%. It is reported that swans have returned  to Venice which now sports cleaner canals and no boat traffic. Ironically home-bound residents take pictures of them from their windows where they are self-isolating. We are beginning to appreciate the changes that can occur and the interrelationship between our behavior and our environment. We too have a bit of a sabbatical, a break from our past patterns and a time to consider how this pause may change our relationship to our environment and to each other.