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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

May 15, 2020

This week, the Union for Reform Judaism, our umbrella organization of 900 congregations, representing 1.5 million Jews throughout the country, made some difficult announcements. Due to the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the URJ eliminated many positions and programs.

The URJ is the central organization supporting and representing Reform synagogues, and also includes our Reform Jewish summer camps, our youth movement, NFTY, and the Religious Action Center, our social justice office in Washington, D.C.

You may know that I have a long history with the URJ. I attended Reform movement summer camps and Israel programs. I used to work for the URJ at a few different points in my life, as a counselor and later rabbi and camp director at URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, and as a Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center.

So this week, after I heard that the URJ would be informing staff members about layoffs and furloughs, I reached out to many friends and former colleagues to check in on them. When I contacted them, I did not know if they would still have jobs, if they had been let go. My heart is going out to all of those people who have served our movement with grit and grace.

And beyond the personal impact on individual staff members, the URJ is cutting programs and resources that have shaped my life and many of yours and your children. This is painful, too. NFTY, the national youth movement, will look completely different, with larger regions and fewer opportunities to meaningfully connect in person. Earlier this month, the URJ cancelled its camp programs throughout the country. This was the only healthy and safe decision that residential programs could make in this time of uncertainty, and it was still so hard.

The reductions that the URJ made to NFTY and the loss of camp, for this summer at least, are particularly challenging for youth in an area like ours. I’m no stranger to growing up in a small Jewish community. In my town in Eastern Mass, there were only a handful of Jewish kids in each grade. I found comfort and connection when I attended NFTY weekends and summers at camp. I found my Jewish identity. I found people who didn’t think my love for Judaism was weird, who didn’t ask why I was different. I found a career path and I found a community and a life-long love for my faith. Knowing the impact that our youth programs had on me and many of your families, I worry about the repercussions that these decisions will have on our youth.

This pandemic is sending ripples into the world, and we do not know the full extent of its impact. What will our institutions look like in the future? What will Jewish life look like 20, 30, 50 years from now?

This week’s Torah portion helps us take that longer view. At its core, Judaism is an agrarian tradition, particularly in the rituals and holidays detailed in our Torah. Our connection to the land is strong and clear. In Leviticus 25, we read about the shmita and the yovel. The shmita follows cycles of seven. We read:

Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest - shabbat shabbaton. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of you run trimmed vines: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce....[you] may eat all its yield. (Leviticus 25:3-7)

If you like to garden or farm, you understand this passage inherently. The shmita, allows for a period of rest for the land after we have worked it for six years, an early and ritualized form of crop rotation. Seven is a special number in our tradition - seven days of the week, six years to take us to this seventh year of period of shmita. Funny enough, as Jews, we’re also into multiplication. Seven weeks of seven days, and we arrive at the end of the Omer, the 49 day period we are in currently, in between Passover and Shavuot.

So our Torah continues,

You shall count off seven weeks of years — seven times seven years — so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of 49 years. Then you shall sound the horn loud, in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month - the Day of Atonement... and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee - a yovel, in Hebrew - for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.

As S. Tamar Kamionkowski explains:

“The biblical system of a jubilee year has been described as utopian in its vision, promoting a system whereby lands sold under financial distress would be returned to the original owners every fifty years. Under this system, there are checks and balances enduring a redistribution of wealth at set intervals. This is indeed a utopian vision, grounded both in the religious belief that only God owns the land and people are but tenants on it, and in the socio-economic vision of a remission of debts at set periods.” (Women’s Torah Commentary 760)

Both the shmita, that seventh year period of rest for the land, and the yovel, the fiftieth year jubilee, can provide us with a frame for today’s challenging moment in our history.

Yes, perhaps we are resting and pausing against our instincts and our will. We all have to do less right now, for the health and safety of our community. We have to let the land lie fallow. For some, this is restorative, as it is for the land, which cannot continue to produce crops if it is stripped of its nutrients. Perhaps in doing less, we are finding out what really matters, and creating new habits, paths, and opportunities.

For some, this is challenging. I think of my friends at the URJ and others who have lost jobs, income, and sustenance. When we let the land lie fallow, we feel the impact, particularly the most vulnerable among us.

That is why the shmita and in particular, the yovel, the jubilee year, is not just a time for the land to rest and the economy to stop. It’s also a time for fundamental adjustments to our structures and systems. It’s a time when debts are forgiven, when those held in servitude are released from all bonds. It’s a time for equalizing. A time for correction.

If we think of this time not just as a pause or a rest, but also as a correction, we can think about what questions we weren’t asking when times weren’t as tough. We can begin to ask ourselves the hard questions about what we need to change about our institutions and our society to best support vibrant communities, and in particular, Jewish life, in the future.

The Reform Movement, the URJ, our cities and towns, our synagogues and gathering places - none of them will not be the same after this crisis. Often, we think of a jubilee as a celebration - this year, being our 150th anniversary as a congregation, is three times our jubilee!

I invite us to also see this global pandemic as a kind of jubilee. It is by no means joyous or celebratory. But it is a time for release, for restructuring, for reassessing, for correcting, and for setting out on a new path for the next cycle of seven, for the next 50 years long into our future.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Fri, May 29 2020 6 Sivan 5780