Shmita, chametz, and sustainability

The terms shmita and chametz were foreign concepts to me – until last year when I learned from a Jewish greening initiative what these concepts meant to their community in terms of environmental and spiritual sustainability.  

Last year, I was invited by a colleague to speak on community-based social marketing at the UJA-Federation of New York.  This organization, the largest local philanthropic foundation in the world, supports the work and service of Jewish synagogues in the NY area and a program called the Greening Fellowship to build leadership capacity and sustainability initiatives within several of their organizations.  This program has grown into a very successful movement within their community!

What I enjoyed so much about working with this group is that their sustainability work is boldly embedded in their culture and values.  As they described their efforts, I also got to learn about some of the Hebrew terms/concepts they seek to live by.  (Below is my humble attempt to describe these concepts.  Please explore the links for a fuller and more accurate description!)

Wheat fields by rafale tovar (flickr)

Wheat fields by rafale tovar (flickr)

Shmita: As one example, my colleague and host, Mirele, described shmita to me, which represents the 7th year of a cycle during which the fields rest – this time represents a sabbatical year or a release.  She spoke of the connection between shmita and learning about our food systems and economic resiliency – that honoring shmita means building sustainable food systems and communal resources so that the community can take that “7th year” to rest, recoup, and celebrate” – something that all communities should have time and resources to do.

Chametz: Another wonderful example of this is in their latest newsletter of Hazon, which works with Jewish greening efforts across the nation.  Nigel Savage, founder of Hazon, writes about the transition, in mind, spirit, and body, to prepare for the seder and the freedom it represents in their community.  Part of the tradition and holidays leading up to seder call for removing fermented products (chametz) from their home.  (Read more: Purim, Household Junk, and the Journey to Freedom.)

Clean table by Derek K. Miller (flickr)

Clean table by Derek K. Miller (flickr)

In today’s world, the concept of chametz can be expanded to material and spiritual aspects that get in the way of one’s freedom.  As such, Hazon encourages its community to get rid of unnecessary items (and not accumulate them in the first place), giving generously to charity and friends, and removing material barriers to spiritually-led acts of generosity, charity, and leadership.

In this short letter, the Jewish Greening Fellowship’s and Hazon’s efforts demonstrate and call for their community to recognize that sustainability is synonymous with spiritual growth. Other communities, religions, and cultures have strong ties to sustainability.  Whether a responsibility to care for creation, a recognition of the inter-dependent relationship between humans and nature and the need to think seven generations out, or recognizing the role of mindfulness in changing consumption and societal values (Zen and the Art of Protecting the Planet).

Perhaps we need to think of sustainability beyond the environmental, societal, and economic benefits and see sustainability as a common language shared among diverse communities of religion, origin, and culture.  When we can see an act of sustainability from several angles, we may find how these actions are not superfluous, but inherent to our identity, values, and beliefs.