What the shmita year can teach us about Chanukah

JERUSALEM (JTA) — When the Maccabees climbed the stairs of the Temple in Jerusalem, they lit the menorah with the knowledge that there was only enough oil to last for one day. Only a miracle could turn oil into a renewable resource. And the future of the planet urges us not to depend on miracles.

The faith and initiative shown by the Maccabees can inspire us this year to take greater action, especially during a Hanukkah that falls during the shmita year.

Shmita is the biblically ordained law that has roots in agriculture and building a just society. It’s a call for the land of Israel to rest every seventh year, for debts to be forgiven and for slaves to be released.

Jewish environmental activists, communal leaders and educators (from Hazon, Siah, Teva Ivri among others) have created robust platforms (conferences, papers, websites and synagogue task forces) to help us consider what shmita can mean for us today living in a mainly non-agrarian society. They have confronted us to think about our mission as a people and how caring for God’s earth is central to that mission. They have developed practical ideas that range from the personal and communal to the national.

On the personal and communal levels, they encourage us to create more energy-efficient homes and institutions, to place recycling centers at the entrance to our institutions that serve as eco-mezuzahs, and to get outside more (even in winter) to appreciate the majesty of the natural world.

On a national level in Israel, Knesset member Ruth Calderon and the minister for social welfare have created a financial recovery program to help needy families settle their debts, and others have created online time banks that give volunteers an opportunity to contribute their time and skill to the needy in our community. All of these are a part of an initiative to infuse new life into an ancient (and sometimes seemingly antiquated) law.

How can a shmita consciousness this Hanukkah help open up another dimension of the holiday? Here are some ideas:

1. Use less electricity: Different from Shabbat candles, we are not meant to use the light of the Hanukkah candles for practical purposes. Encouraged to “l’rotam b’lvad” (literally, “only see them”), we slow down and are fully present to remind ourselves of the miracle of the oil that lasted longer than it naturally should. While the Hanukkah candles are burning, turn off all the lights in your home and think about renewable energy sources as you view the small flame. Save electricity for those 30 minutes, and when the candles burn down and you turn on the artificial lights, have a greater consciousness about the kinds of energy you use and think
about switching to the miracle of solar power.

2. Consume less and celebrate more: Many analysts agree that one of the major problems with our ecological crisis is overconsumption. Americans make up only 5 percent of the population of the world but consume 20 percent of its resources (food, water and energy.) In the Jewish community, our affluence contributes to this trend. Instead of placing our emphasis on the material — presents and more presents — let’s think about how we can celebrate in a more creative way. Songs, games, gestures of love and friendship are free. Make these things the center of your Hanukkah celebration this year; it can be a model for moderation in consumption that we exercise for the rest of the year.

3. Forgive debts: Whether you have actually lent money to someone in the last three months, this is the year to forgive these debts. But on a more spiritual level, consider how you can be more forgiving this Hanukkah. If there is anyone you hold a grudge against or think you are owed something from, forgive them.

4. Appreciate nature more: Especially in the winter, it is harder to appreciate nature when we are cooped up inside. This Hanukkah, make a point to go for a walk (just dress warmly), breathe the air, take delight in a small part of your garden or a tree on the street.

5. Buy fair trade chocolate gelt: A shmita consciousness considers what “releasing slaves” can mean for us in our day-to-day lives. And while we might have a Pavlovian reaction to those golden coins in a mesh yellow bag, the chocolate industry is known to use child labor in their production of chocolate. This year, think about purchasing fair trade chocolate.

6. Rest: The shmita year calls for the land to rest and can inspire us to think about what rest means for us on a personal level. Consider the difference between how we spend the holiday – rushing from party to party while balancing work/family/friends/volunteer commitments. At the end of the day, all we want to do is “tune out” (with Facebook, email and TV). Think about “tuning in” to the kind of rest that will replenish you as shmita will replenish the earth. At candle-lighting, offer a short meditation that reflects on your day and sets an intention for the hours ahead, eat healthier food (bake your latkes, don’t fry them!), read and sleep.

7. Share: When land lies fallow during the shmita year, the fields are open for the needy to partake. This mitzvah is as countercultural as it gets for westerners living in a capitalist society as it confronts us with the notion that nothing really belongs to us. This Hanukkah, share with others who really need it. Cut down on your gift budget by half and increase your tzedakah budget by the same.

8. Publicize: One of the Hanukkah mitzvot is “persumei d’nisa,” to make the miracle of Hanukkah public by placing your hanukkiyah in your window (or even outside your home.) This Hanukkah, take your environmental awareness to the streets and share what you are doing with others to have a shmita consciousness.

So as the days get shorter and the nights grow longer, as we spend more time huddled indoors disconnected from the natural world that surrounds us, and as artificial light masks the darkness, let’s not forget about the majesty of the created world.

When we strike the match to light our Hanukkah candles this year, we are inspired by the spirit of the Maccabees to renew our energy to create positive change for our planet.

(Dasee Berkowitz is a Jewish educational consultant and writer living in Jerusalem. She is a frequent contributor to JTA, the Forward and