Human ‘Havings’ or Human Beings
The Sabbath and Sabbatical Year
BY RABBI DORON PEREZ
Remarkably, since the turn of the twenty-first century, shopping malls in the Western world occupy more real estate than schools.
G.K. Chesterton once said that “education is the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to the next.” Our privileged and affluent generation invests more time and resources in the myriad tastes and preferences of the body than it does in the needs and aspirations of the soul. Before our eyes, material gratification has trumped spiritual meaning; consumerism has superseded education.
In recent years, shopping malls have been supplanted by internet consumerism, a shift speeded by the pandemic. In the comfort of our home and with the click of a button on Amazon, AliExpress and the like, we can order any product from almost anywhere in the world and have it delivered to our doorstep within a few days. We have become human “havings,” as what we have and possess becomes ever more central to our core identities. Some social commentators have termed our current state of affairs as “affluenza” – an all-consuming ailment and “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”1
Incredibly, there is no Hebrew word for the English word “have”; the closest equivalent is יֵשׁ לִי, literally translated as “there is to me.” Why is Hebrew missing such an elemental word? It seems that Judaism has a radically different attitude toward the things we own. The word “have” implies that what I own is part of me, that it is mine. But in the Torah’s view, we must never be defined by what we own, for what we have is not truly ours. Ultimately, everything in the world belongs to G-d – לַה‘ הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ – “The entire world and all in it belongs to Hashem.”2
G-d, of course, has bestowed upon us the right to property – to legally own property and possessions as part of the course of normative human interaction. This right, however, comes with terms and limits. The Torah cites two powerful examples of these limits – the Shemitta year and the Yovel (Jubilee) year. During the Shemitta year, all agricultural land owned by Jews is rendered ownerless, allowing everyone to partake of its produce. And at the end of the Shemitta year, all money that we have lent to others is relinquished and the debts are wiped away.3 An even stronger limitation on property ownership is implemented during the Yovel year, when all land acquired from others is returned to its original owners, כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ, “For the whole world belongs to Me.”4
Shemitta and Yovel underscore the need to regulate private wealth and consumerism and to ensure they do not become the dominant values in a Jewish society. We must never be defined by what we have. We are merely the custodians of our possessions, transient caretakers called upon to use our possessions for G-dly causes greater than ourselves.
As we have all too often become human “havings,” caught up in a culture of consumerism, we have also allowed ourselves to become human “doings.” In our market and industry-driven economy, there is a premium placed on productivity. The quicker we are able to manufacture and produce at industrial levels, the more successful we become. The technological interconnectedness of the global economy has only exacerbated our frenetic work pace, as colleagues and clients throughout the world reach out to us day and night with the expectation of an immediate response. Our output-driven lives are dictated by urgency, deadlines and performance. We have become human “doings,” constantly on the go. You snooze, you lose!
It is true that little in life is accomplished without hard work, dedication, toil and a proactive focus on getting things done. The great challenge of life, however, is to achieve balance. It is the transformative concept of Shabbat which aims to restore this critical balance.
To ensure that the dual impulses of consumerism and productivity, of having and doing, are not all-consuming, we are blessed – every single week – with the opportunity to be human “beings,” to simply be. By prohibiting all acts of creative work and shaping the world for material gain, Shabbat celebrates this state of simply being. It allows us to experience one day each week without producing or procuring, transforming us from human “havings” and human “doings” into human “beings.” Shabbat alters our mindset, focusing us not on what is yet to be done but rather on what has already been achieved; not on what we lack, but on what we already have. Shabbat prohibits us from dwelling on our concerns for the future, demanding that we be fully present. It calls upon us to give full attention to that which is important and meaningful as opposed to that which is urgent and pressing. We focus not on results but on the relationships that truly matter – with Hashem, ourselves, our spouses and family and friends.
How do we achieve this state of mind? Our Sages offer a remarkable insight which is hinted to in the Ten Commandments: “Six days you shall labor and complete all your work but the seventh day is a Shabbat to Hashem.” The verse states that we must complete all of our work before Shabbat. Our Sages point out that this is an impossible task. When do we ever complete everything we set out to do? We always have unfinished tasks that we need to continue working on after Shabbat! They explain that there is only one place in which you can, indeed, “complete all your work” – in the precincts of the mind. G-d has commanded us to enter Shabbat as if all of our work is done. Shabbat calls upon us to alter our frame of mind, to transcend the daily vicissitudes of life and enter into an oasis in time and a wellspring of mindfulness.5
Shabbat & Shemitta
One of many gifts that the Jewish people have given the world is the magical concept of Shabbat. It is a time to balance our proactive, producing and procuring selves with our mindful and spiritual selves.
This is precisely the focal point of both the weekly Shabbat as well as the sabbatical year. Indeed, the Torah refers to the sabbatical year as “Shabbat” far more frequently than it uses its other names such as Shemitta and shevi’it.6 Only Shabbat and Shemitta are called by the unique term ’שַׁבָּת לַה, “Shabbat to Hashem,” for both are unique times dedicated to G-d and heavenly pursuits.
For millennia, Shabbat gave our people the strength and perspective to survive in exile. Today, in the Land of Israel, Shabbat and Shemitta are shaping our future. Every seven days, the economy comes to a standstill, as Jews across the Land pause and spiritually reboot. Every seven years, the Land of Israel itself and the entire agrarian economy come to a grinding halt for an entire year. It is a time for societal recalibration.
The weekly Shabbat and Shemitta year are times for resetting our spiritual compass, an opportunity to give primacy to our cherished relationships and to reconnect with our core values. It is a critical time of perspective, wholeness and restoration of balance, when our self-worth stems not from what we have and what we do, but from who we are. It is a time to be truly redeemed as human beings.
1 Affluenza, John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor, Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2005).
2 Tehillim 25:1.
3 When people stopped loaning money to the poor because of this law, Hillel instituted the Prozbul to circumvent this law (see page 12 for an explanation of the mechanics of the Prozbul).
4 Vayikra 25:23.
5 The Midrash from the Mechilta is cited in Rashi, Shemot 20:9.
6 See Shemot, 25:1–8.
Rabbi Doron Perez is the Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi.