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Laurie Franklin

What happens when Hanukkah meets Shmita? Most of us are familiar with Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light. In the darkest time of year, we light candles to commemorate the rededication and consecration of the ancient Temple of the Israelites. Today, Jews celebrate this holiday as both a holiday of freedom and a bringing of Divine Light into long, dark winter nights.

But what is “Shmita”? The dictionary defines shmita as relaxing your grip, letting something go. In Jewish tradition, the shmita year occurs every seventh year. The Bible says that agricultural land is to remain fallow that year. People are allowed to gather what grows on its own, without deliberate cultivation. It’s a seventh-year Sabbath for land. What an extraordinary test of faith for an agriculturally based society, to ask an entire people to live through a year without working the land!

This year, Hanukkah falls in a shmita year. The sages of Judaism teach that every holiday, every observance presents an opportunity for spiritual growth and greater connection with the Divine. What can the synchrony of Hanukkah and shmita year teach us? What happens when “light” and “release” intersect?

This year, maybe Hanukkah can literally shed light on all the unnecessary work we do. I don’t mean the things we have to do to survive or the support we give to others; I mean the busy work, the work that keeps us laboring for material stuff and keeps us from spending time of good quality together. Can we let some of our busy time go fallow and see what arises to give deeper meaning to our lives?

Maybe the Hanukkah lights can remind us to rededicate ourselves to our relationships, putting aside behaviors that distance us from people we care about.

Maybe we can rededicate ourselves to discourse abut the challenging issues of our day, and especially, to address racism and justice at home and abroad.

What if, in the light of the Hanukkah candles, we re-imagine how to work the land to eliminate pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers that pollute groundwater and reduce biodiversity?

What about finding a few extra moments to appreciate the sky? Or watch children at play? Or join in? What if we consecrate the small joys of a day: a door held open by a stranger, a smile, a hug, a crisp apple?

What if, during this shmita-year Hanukkah, we rededicate ourselves to gratitude for waking up in the morning? What if winter darkness helps us discover the spark of Divine light within us? What if, as the candles flicker and glow, we allow ourselves release from worry and experience a few moments of genuine peace?

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Laurie Franklin is the spiritual leader and rabbinic intern at Har Shalom, 3035 South Russell Street, Missoula, MT, har-shalom.org. She can be reached at laurief@har-shalom.org.

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