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In Praise of laying fallow

There’s a story about a man

who came upon his friend in the woods one day,

sawing away at a tree.

The friend was struggling---

heaving his saw back and forth,

barely creating sawdust,

let alone making much headway in cutting down this tree.

“Friend, you have to stop--- your saw is dull.”

The man replied-

“I have no time to stop.

I have to keep going.

I need to get the tree down,

so I can finish chopping it up for firewood.

Winter’s almost here, there’s just no time.”

He kept at it, sawing back and forth, back and forth.

Again, the man tried to intervene---

“Friend, you have to stop--- your saw is dull.”

But still, he kept on sawing away.

10 minutes passed,

and then an hour,

and then a whole day.

The man tried again.

“Friend, you have to stop.

Your saw is dull.

It’s been a day already

and you’re not much farther along

than when you started.

You have to stop—

sharpen your saw,

take a break, and then come back—

you’ll get it done much faster.”

This time, the friend listened.

He brought the saw to the whetstone,

running it across until it gleamed---

newly sharpened, ready for the task at hand.

He could scarcely remember the saw ever looking this sharp before.

He sat for a moment,

drank a coffee--- and went back to the tree.

Months later,

as he and his friend sat in front of a roaring fire,

crackling with the wood from that tree,

now dried and seasoned,

he said “thank you.

You were right. I had to stop. My saw was dull.”


Tonight, as we enter into this new year of 5782,

I can’t help but identify with that man

sawing away at the tree,

exerting himself, working hard,

but making little progress.

I can’t help but look around,

and notice that most of our saws are looking rather dull.

Dulled by more than a year of uncertainty---

blunted by the constant deciding and reevaluating.

This moment of new year joy

is tempered by the anxieties

that come with being human

at this moment in history.

How sharp could we really expect ourselves to be at a time like this?

Or, to understand it through the voice of Kohelet,

Im kay-ha ha’barzel, v’hu lo fanim kilkayl, v’chayalim, yigabayr. V’yitron ha’chshayr, chochma.

אִם-קֵהָה הַבַּרְזֶל, וְהוּא לֹא-פָנִים קִלְקַל, וַחֲיָלִים, יְגַבֵּר;

וְיִתְרוֹן הַכְשֵׁיר, חָכְמָה.

If your saw is dull, and you do not sharpen it, it will take more strength, but wisdom will bring greater success. (Ecc. 10:10)

Ecclesiastes and Steven Covey may have something in common-

For those of you familiar with Steven Covey’s

“7 habits of highly successful people”,

you may recognize that parable of “sharpening our saws”.

But here is where we will leave

our friend Steven Covey behind.

I believe it’s going to take more than a whetstone to sharpen our saws, and to do the kind of healing that this moment calls for.

I want to name that for some of us,

it is our saw that is dull:

the tools and resources

that typically bring us joy and meaning,

that we are used to having at our fingertips

are not there.

For others, it’s that we simply don’t have the strength

to keep picking up the saw

and continuing to try to saw away.

Perhaps you identify with the man with the dull saw--- feeling the pressure to do and to produce and to achieve. You’re worried that winter is coming,

and there’s still so much to do,

even if you find yourself ineffective

and inefficient in your efforts.

Or maybe,

you identify with the friend---

wishing and hoping that the world around you

might just stop for a moment,

put aside their concern with winter and wood and saws, and give it a rest.

You’re watching the world continue to saw away,

as though the saw isn’t dull,

as though they aren’t exhausted

by this futile effort.

To be sure, we are not all the same.

Our experiences over the last 18 months

are not the same.

For some of us,

the past 18 months have been almost deafening:

the literal, constant din of children

needing help with remote learning,

or another snack,

or the sound of a spouse on a work call

at the same dining room table

where you thought you might sit to get some work done.

For others, these last 18 months

have been deafeningly quiet:

sometimes peaceful, but mostly a bit lonely---

our homes filled less often with guests, family and friends.

No matter your individual experience,

each of us has experienced trauma over this last year, whether we recognize it or not.

These last months felt like a scab, picked at,

revealing the freshness of the wound,

as we began to realize the ways

in which life was in fact not “back to normal.”

Making our way out from this summer,

I, for one,

am feeling a sense of spiritual dysregulation---

unable to rely on myself as “usual”.

But this is where our Jewish tradition has a gift to offer us,

if only we have the vision and fortitude

to accept this gift,

and to allow its blessings to unfold in our lives.

As we usher in the new year of 5782,

we also mark the beginning of what we call in Torah

the shmitta, or Sabbatical year.

We read in the book of Exodus:

“Six years you shall sow your land and gather in it’s yield. But in the seventh, you shall let it rest and lie fallow.” (Exodus 23)

The concept of shmitta

is part of Torah’s vision for a just society;

a Shabbat for the lands,

which extends to the humans who toil over it.

Torah is unequivocal in this regard---

rest is built into the plan, not an afterthought.

Rest is, in fact, the whole point.

Shmitta is both a time, and a concept---

it is part of the cycle of time,

each seventh year.

In Torah,

the concept of the shmitta year

is specific to the land of Israel;

a way to ensure that every seven years,

the land has the chance to rest.

Just as God gives Shabbat to the Jewish people

to stop and to rest once every seven days,

so too the land is given that chance to refresh and renew, once every seven years.

Torah teaches that this is a time

for leaving the land fallow;

a time of recovery for the land,

a Shabbat for the Earth.

Just as we need rest,

so does our planet.

In the shmitta year,

we neither tend nor toil,

relying instead

on storehouses so lovingly filled and tended

over the previous six years—

sustained by the earlier work of our hands,

as both we and the land rest.

The wisdom of shmitta extends beyond Torah,

beyond the land and the fields,

beyond the land of Israel,

and presents itself to us as a structure

by which we might make our way through this next year.

As we welcome in this shmitta year,

I think of the parable of the saw,

and wonder if it’s less that our saw needs sharpening,

so much as the wood cutter needs rest.

We have overused our tools,

dulling them into inefficiency.

We, the wood choppers,

are not so sharp ourselves.

And for some of us,

rest feels like it comes with a cost.

Rest so often feels like a luxury we cannot afford.

I look at each of you---

both those here in our sanctuary,

and those at home,

I look at our world, and of this I am sure:

our world, and its inhabitants need this shmitta year.

We need it desperately---

and yet, our reality diverges from Torah

in a most challenging way:

our ancestors knew shmitta was coming.

They could prepare.

Over this last year and a half,

many of us have tried to prepare,

but we never could have known

what kind of storehouses of fortitude,

patience, and acceptance we would need to have.

What would it mean

to allow ourselves to lay a bit fallow

in this year ahead?

And is there a difference between rest and lying fallow?

As my friend and teacher

Dr. Betsy Stone suggests,

shmitta might be more about control

than anything else.

Lying fallow is not passive,

but it is a relinquishing of control.

Planting for the sake of a harvest

requires attention

not only to the plants,

but to the environment---

anxious attention to the possible threats,

worry about the weather, the animals, the sun.

We plant with intention,

and work,

determined to bring forth from the earth

what we have determined

is the right thing to produce.

Lying fallow is to release control.

Even as someone with a brown thumb,

I know what happens to a field left untended.

It grows wild.

It goes untamed.

But lying fallow

just simply does not come naturally to most of us.

From our gardens and our fields,

to our children, our work,

to the plans we make---

relinquishing control runs counter

to the world as we knew it.

Lying fallow looks and feels

a whole lot like doing nothing,

and doing nothing isn’t so easy.

But here’s the wisdom of a fallow field:

A fallow field may look

like there’s nothing happening,

but within that pile of dirt,

there is a flurry of activity.

Worms burrow tunnels

that nourish and aerate the soil.

Organic matter decomposes

into life-giving nutrients.

Rainfall gathers into underground water.

The health of next year’s harvest

depends upon this rich,

invisible dance beneath the surface. [1]

Lying fallow isn’t laziness

or the absence of purpose;

it’s purposeful absence that allows for growth.

In her book

“How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” Jenny O’Dell writes:

But beyond self-care and the ability to (really) listen, the practice of doing nothing has something broader to offer us: an antidote to the rhetoric of growth. In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative. Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and are as productive in the same way.

Rest and regeneration

are core to this concept of shmitta.

To be clear, last year was not the rest.

Last year was not the lying fallow

that shmitta requires of us.

Last year was a year

of incredible engagement with the world—

politically, communally, and personally.

Let us not underestimate

the emotional and spiritual toll of this past year

simply because we continued to stay home

and stay apart more than we had in the past.

Even as we spent so much time physically apart,

our sense of interdependence was high.

Last year was not the rest.

Shmitta is not only about rest,

it’s also about healing.

It’s a Divine offering of time to recover.

God knows the land cannot

be toiled and tilled endlessly.

God knows we cannot work endlessly.

Shmitta, through the lens of healing,

is about giving ourselves time

to let that scar tissue build up.

To let the wounds close up,

and rather than rushing to the next thing-

to the next plan, or the next project,

or the next program,

sitting—and seeing what emerges.

So what does this mean in practice?

It means that we can choose to stop.

We have to.

I believe our souls depend on it.

It means saying no,

when no is the choice

that allows us time to rest and to heal.

It means saying yes to the people,

experiences and places that are nourishing.

Shmitta is more than a nap,

or a break, or a quick vacation.

It is a reorientation

toward a life shaped by the spaces between.

It is about regenerating.

Shmitta is about lying fallow.

About letting go of our need

to control time and space and land and people:

and seeing what happens.


is about letting our hands and bodies do nothing,

so that our hearts and souls can heal.

My deepest hope and prayer

on this eve of the shmitta year of 5782

is a prayer that I offer to each of you,

even as I offer it to myself:

May it be a year of seeing what happens

when we let certain fields lay fallow.

May it be a year

of allowing ourselves the gift of rest:

radical, restorative rest that comes with no explanation.

Rest that we earn simply by being human,

simply by having made it to this moment.

May it be a year that moves us toward healing.

[1] Robin Cangie.

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