Three Questions For The New Year 2021

By Dr. Jeremy Benstein

When we begin a new period in our lives, a new year, such as this new year, there are three simple questions we must ask ourselves. The questions are simple ones, the answers – not necessarily:

What new things do we want to do, to adopt, to promote?
What are the things that we’ve been doing all along, that we want to continue?
Finally, what are the things that we’ve been doing, that we want to re-evaluate, to change, to let go, perhaps simply to cease doing? 

The question that usually grabs our attention first, is the first one. Everyone is looking for innovation, disruption, breakthrough discoveries, for the newest thing in town that no one has ever done before. It’s so boring simply to continue. To keep on keepin’ on. And so the second question is often under-appreciated, or even ignored: what shouldn’t we change? Where should we not innovate? What has been working well for us that we just need to maintain (if it ain’t broken…)? Or – what processes are we in the thick of, that we should still continue developing, proceeding according to plan? This can be even more important than the first since with the race to innovate, we often neglect the important concept of maintenance, and the discipline required to persevere.

But specifically this year it behooves us to devote special attention to the third question: what are we to cease from, to release (in Hebrew, lishmot – as in shmitah, the year of release and renewal that begins with the new Hebrew year)? Recently, more and more Jewish social-environmental activists find inspiration for change in the idea of shmitah, which originally was a year-long cessation of productive labor together with forgiveness of debts for the sake of promoting social solidarity at a more modest standard of living for all. Shmitah is a very radical vision of systemic change, based on cycles, for the good of adam and adamah, humans and the earth.
Shmitah invites us to critically appraise all aspects of our lives, and especially those that we enjoy, that are difficult to wean ourselves from. We must decide what we are to continue, those things that are important, that create value, that build the world, and what habits or institutions must we put an end to, because they simply do not serve our best long-term interests, or take a break from – in order to gain perspective about our priorities and what is good for our lives, our society and our world.

This year we are dedicating our large yearly conference on Sustainability and Community to the idea of shmitah and climate change. For the huge challenges we face surrounding climate change also invite us to look at ourselves and our lives critically, and think together: what must we cease or change, in order to save the world, our common home which is burning?

We wish everyone – the people of Israel, all residents of the country, and all people and creatures everywhere, a sustaining and sustainable year, a year where we may be blessed with the necessary wisdom and the audacity to know what to innovate, what to maintain – and what to let go.