Rosh Hashana Day Sermon 5782 – On Becoming Ownerless

So, imagine it – you’re sitting in your bathrobe, drinking your morning coffee and looking out your garden window. A cluster of people you’ve never seen before are sauntering in and out of your garden. As they fill bowls with figs and apples from your trees, they smile and wave at you. You feel the inner lurch, the impulse to yell out – “hey, that’s mine!,” to run after them and shew them away like you would squirrels trying to make off with your best ripe berries, but then you stop yourself. You stop and take a breath. This year, it is all hefker – ownerless. It doesn’t belong to you. You let it go and let it be.                       

This, or some version of this, is what Torah commands the Israelites for the Sabbatical year, Shnat Shmitah,: “For six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, but in the seventh, tishm’tenah u’nitashta – you are to let it go and to let it be, so that the needy of your people may eat, and what remains, the wildlife of the field shall eat” (Exodus 23:10-11). 

So, for 6 years, our farming Israelite ancestors worked the land and gathered its harvest, but every seventh year would interrupt the norms of planting, tilling and harvesting.

Every seventh year, the labour stopped.

Every seventh year, the soil rested.

Every seventh year, the perennials, the fruit of the fruit trees, the wild growth of the untilled earth became hefker – ownerless. It suddenly belonged to no one, and therefore, belonged to everyone. For a year, rich and poor, owners and non-owners, could go from field to field and take what they needed. No one lacked and no one had excess.

These laws are radical and absurd-sounding to our Western ears. We live in a culture that cherishes and fiercely protects the rights of private property and private ownership. We live in an economy dependent on the perpetual engine of producing, owning, consuming, needing more and producing more.

Western culture also invests tremendous significance in not only what we own, but how what we own makes us feel. We express –“this is me”- through all the things we point to saying – “this is mine” – my clothes, my books, my electronics, the art on my walls. I remember being 11 and using my allowance to buy my most beloved pair of ballet pointe shoes. Owning them made me feel like a true ballerina, rather than the skinny, dorky kid who got teased at school.

Most of us have been raised with strong messages that the more independent we are, the better. We’ve been taught that ownership is the path to that independence, paved with success, safety and uniqueness. Of course, a sense of ownership is not limited to the items we purchase – we say “mine” in relation to my ideas, my creative work, my beliefs, my friends, my partner, my body, my life.

Identifying with what we own can be a positive source of delight, self-expression and security. At times, that sense of owning is covering over our insecurities and fears that no amount of stuff can quell. And at times that identification with what is mine can be the justification to go to war to protect it. What’s tricky is that most of us contain all these different relationships with the things and qualities we possess, often without awareness or discernment about which are fruitful and which cause harm to us, to others and to our planet.   

Now, in case you’re starting to get worried that I’m going to show up at your door and ask you to hand over your kitchen appliances and jewellery, I’ll be clear that Judaism does not ask us to give up our worldly possessions or relinquish all that we lay claim to, as ours. But the laws and values of Shmita are the cornerstone of Judaism’s counter-cultural orientation toward ownership. This year, 5782, is a Shmita year, an opportunity for us to question and shake up our beliefs about what we think of as ours, to loosen our grip on ownership, and to take on daring moral and spiritual commitments of letting go and letting be – for the sake of a more just and sustainable world, and to grow into wiser, freer, more sane selves.

Generally speaking, Torah is very clear that when it comes to the earth, land is not a commodity that humans can own. God tells the Israelites in Leviticus (25:23):

“The land must not be sold into permanent ownership, for the land is Mine: You are strangers and settlers with Me.” 

Especially when the wandering Israelites finally enter the Promised land, grow their own food and build stable homes, they must understand themselves as temporary residents on the earth. The ability to use the land, to benefit from it, to be nourished by it, is not, in Judaism, a right. It is a conditional gift that comes with obligations.

This idea has much commonality with Indigenous values of stewardship of the earth and sharing its resources with the humble awareness that the land does not belong to us.   

The Israelites are commanded to leave the corners of their fields for the poor, to leave anything dropped while harvesting for the poor, “so that they may live among you.” In this framing, providing for those who are hungry, giving to those who don’t have access to resources, it is not an act of generosity. It’s a responsibility.

This is an approach to giving that is categorically different from giving away the tricycle the kids have outgrown, or the pile of clothes that Marie Kondo helped you realize no longer bring you joy. Those are important, but when we stretch and give in alignment with Torah’s ideals, challenging ideals, we are not giving from what we own. We are actually giving what we owe. That is a radically different way of looking at all that we possess.    

Torah stamps a warning label on the earth and on everything we can derive from it  – “Warning – Ownership may lead to human separation, class-induced blindness, greed and delusions of self-sufficiency. Own with caution.”  Torah gives us instructions for good care and best results – “Pato’ach tiftach et yadecha – open, open your hand to the needy in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11). We are given the mitzvah – Practice opening your hand, opening your eyes, opening your heart regularly. Rather than cutting us off from one another behind fences and locked doors, Torah’s framing principle is that we belong to each other, that we are all vulnerable, temporary settlers and strangers on God’s good earth and in this life, and that we are to use the gifts that come into our hands to ensure the collective wellbeing and the health of society as a whole.

It takes constant reminding, constant practice, to move ourselves closer to this worldview and to live by it. If we are engaging in these ways during the 6 years of the cycle, then when the Shmita year arrives, perhaps the shift to greater letting go and relinquishing will not feel quite as jarring or foreign. Perhaps our hands and hearts will be accustomed to opening. Maybe we will be ready, willing and even excited to engage in this 7th year exercise, in what Maimonides calls “divesting ourselves” from ownership.

In his article, “Envisioning Sabbatical Culture,” Yigal Deutscher writes, “Shmita itself is not an isolated moment in time, but rather a cyclical expression of a vibrant culture rooted in local food systems, economic resiliency, and community empowerment. For us today, the Shmita Cycle can take shape as a story of transition, from the isolated self towards holistic community; from perceived scarcity towards revealed abundance.”

Living through the pandemic these past 18 months has been, not only good preparation for the Shmita year, but we have been getting schooled in why it is so deeply needed.

We have been learning how to make the values of public health and the public good higher priorities than private earning. We’ve been seeing how the increased risk of getting Covid, of it becoming life-threatening, of insufficient access to treatment, all correlate with economic vulnerability and disparity, especially in racialized communities. The spread of Covid around the globe has been teaching us, through our bodies, how we impact one another, for harm or for good, and that we absolutely do not and cannot live independently of others. The struggles of isolation, managing work, school, attending to basic needs has forced us to change our expectations of what it means to be productive and the purpose of productivity. And we have been coming face to face with the illusions and limits of our control, learning how to let go, by necessity and by choice. Black poet and activist, Sonya Renee Taylor writes, “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

So friends, how shall we commit to Sabbatical culture and Shmita consciousness this year in order to stich a new garment?

If the primary mitzvah of the Sabbatical year is to relinquish ownership, share radically, and care for others, how can we make it our life’s purpose this year to become radically giving, sharing people in all the ways we are able? What do you have in your backyard, garage, on your bookshelf or in your closets that you might share this year? What is something you own that you can declare is hefker, ownerless, and how might you invite others to use it, enjoy it, take what they need from it without having to ask your permission? How might you open your home or your dinner table more often and to a circle of people significantly wider than those you call your family and friends? Of course, this will also be a training in becoming radically receptive and more dependent as others share with you. For some of us, that’s the harder one.

How much money or time do you usually give to support local food security? What if you made a commitment to double it or triple it this year? Or donate to Mutual Aid Societies, enabling and trusting people to take according to their needs.

When my sister was living in Manhattan, she struggled to figure out how to respond to all the people living with homelessness who asked her for money every day. She experimented for 6 months with giving to every single person who asked. They weren’t large sums but she stopped assessing who she thought deserved it or not, and practiced opening her hand over and over again. Maybe this is a practice to take on this year.

What about declaring any of your skills and abilities as hefker this year – sharing your million-dollar ideas freely, choosing more opportunities to collaborate with others, to mentor others and offer free professional advice. Maybe this is the year to notice and let go of the stories you hold about who deserves or doesn’t deserve your time or kindness or your love. What happens if you think of these capacities not as your private possessions but as gifts, resources, to be shared for the common good? 

What if you don’t buy anything new this year, and instead, organize clothing swaps and tool exchanges. What if you swore off Amazon for the next 12 months?! I promise we can organize a support group to get you through it. And for things that you need to buy, what if you commit to spending an equal amount to buy the same item for someone who can’t afford it?

It is likely, if you do take on any of these hefker practices, that you will notice anxieties and discomfort arising that you didn’t know you had. You might become anxious about scarcity, worried about giving more than you receive, uncomfortable with unfamiliar forms of wide openheartedness, and socially awkward as you let people in and lean into greater interdependence and reciprocity. What trust would we need to develop within ourselves, with the Divine and with each other to be able to let it go and let it be?

These are only a few examples of how we might live Sabbatical culture this year. May deep rest, spaciousness, humility and collective goodness be woven into everything we do. Let’s share our ideas and bold experiments. Let’s use this as an opportunity at the DJC, celebrating our 25th anniversary, to take a step back, get to know each other more deeply and to imagine what seeds we want to plant next, for the Jewish community and for our world.

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