Although the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was shocking, frightening, and upending, my family and I took great delight in the initial days and weeks of lockdown as we watched the natural world enjoy a break from human consumption and activity. When we were homebound, unable to drive to the grocery store or fly for work, even the streets of Los Angeles, where I was living at the time, became relatively still and quiet.
For the first time in my eight years living in the city, I could hear birdsong—not the usual faint chirping of birds, but the full movement of their melodic conversations. When I took my kids for our daily two-block walk, the air smelled cleaner and we saw trees and bushes blooming that I had never seen flower. Even the potted plants on our porch, which my black thumb had tucked into soil when we first moved in, were vibrant and flourishing. I was surprised to wake in the middle of the night, not to the sound of a crying child, but to the repetitive call of a mockingbird apparently seeking a mate.
At first I wondered whether the quiet was allowing me to hear all the sounds of nature that I normally couldn’t. But the vibrant green of the shrubs on my porch and those birds flitting from tree to tree seemed to be saying, “How glorious the air is! How clear the sky! We can breathe again!” The message was clear: as soon as human activity stopped, the natural world became more alive. And the uncomfortable subtext: even as thousands of human beings were dying, the world we dominated and subjugated for our human needs was healing.
Calling this unprecedented human ceasing an “anthropause,” researchers confirm what the birds and flora seemed to be telling me. Many of the researchers eagerly seized the opportunity to study the effects of human activity on wildlife and observed that “nature appears to have changed, especially in urban environments.” Unsurprisingly, they noted a decrease in air, noise, and water pollution. An article in Science of the Total Environment concludes that, “As all the types of social, economic, industrial and urbanization activity suddenly shut off, nature takes the advantages and showed improvement in the quality of air, cleaner rivers, less noise pollution, undisturbed and calm wildlife.”
Although the pandemic continues to constrict human life today, it didn’t take long after that initial period of strict quarantine and commercial shutdown for urban activity, industry, and travel to start up again. Those few months of pause were not enough to reverse the damage people have inflicted on our planet and its species. Human created climate change continues to promise disaster. However, that brief and glorious anthropause did offer a hopeful glimpse of what might be possible for the environment if humans conspired to restrict their consumption and activity. And it dawned on me, this past Rosh Hashanah, that Jewish tradition offers a blueprint for doing just that.
In September we entered the Jewish year 5782, which is a shmita year in Judaism’s agricultural cycle. Shmita is a sabbatical year for the earth, which God commanded the Israelites to observe once they planted and harvested land in Israel: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat” (Exodus 23:10-11). This year of rest for the land not only allows the earth to replenish itself, but reminds people that the land belongs not to them, but to God.
Shmita (שמיטה) means “release” and practising it requires that the people release their control over the land and its resources. We must acknowledge our role as caretakers and temporary tenants of this place. While the mitzvah of shmita was restricted to the land of ancient Israel and may or may not have been practised as it was written in the Torah, Jews have nevertheless attempted to live out the spirit of the mitzvah in various ways. During my most recent stay in Israel, it was a shmita year and our neighbours roped off their small family garden and posted signs warning passersby not to pick the flowers or peas. For spiritual thinkers like me, shmita has been a septennial invitation to let go of unnecessary stuff, relationships, and ideas that no longer serve us. For many progressive Jews in the diaspora, shmita is an ancient and urgent call to live sustainably and to prevent climate devastation.
No matter how one interprets shmita, the idea is radical. Through shmita, God envisions society agreeing to relinquish control over our ultimate source of food and income every seven years. The release is radical, but perhaps more so is the expectation that we would all agree to do it. After all, shmita only works if everyone with property and/or resources participates. God dreams we would all intentionally pause, pull our tools from the soil and store away our machines, let vines climb and weeds overtake the field. As Rob Eshman put it in his Los Angeles Times piece: “Shmita is a biblical proof-text that there’s a time to sow, a time to reap and a time—decreed from on high—for society to let nature recover.”
Having experienced the brief yet undeniable resuscitation of the natural world in the spring of 2020, I am left wondering whether we could and should institute some version of shmita. As we continue to navigate the perils of the pandemic and suffer the consequences of human impact on the climate, I do want to consider if and how we might take cues from our tradition to release our fatal hold on the earth and its atmosphere.
Header image design by Orly Zebak.
Rabbi Keilah Lebell was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and spent the first three years of her rabbinate working for IKAR, a nondenominational, progressive, justice-centred Jewish community in Los Angeles. She and her husband, Rabbi Sam Rotenberg, recently moved with their three young children to Chattanooga, Tennessee where he serves as the rabbi for B’nai Zion Congregation. Rabbi Lebell specializes in pastoral care and spiritual counselling, using Jewish text and practice to help individuals and communities heal and find hope.