Behar-Bechukotai: Your Sabbatical Year

Forty years ago in college economics I learned the concept of “opportunity cost.” The cost of doing “x” is the foregone benefit of the best alternative action.  Although an economic principle, it applies to every kind of cost and benefit, not just financial.   

I think about “opportunity cost” when I contemplate the major decisions I’ve made during my life so far; personal, business, and spiritual, and the alternative paths I might have pursued.  My decisions weren’t all good ones, but I think I can say that I’ve taken time to ponder alternatives and the “opportunity cost” of continuing my current direction.  Doing so has led to several sharp “course corrections,” which is perhaps what my wife diplomatically refers to when she says I’ve “kept her on her toes.” 

One of the main purposes – and benefits -- of Shabbat is its prompting us to slow down and rest every seventh day, which in turn enables us to reflect upon our priorities.  One might even say that Shabbat is, in part, about engaging in a frequent “opportunity cost” life analysis. 

This week’s Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, mandates an agricultural “super-Shabbat.”  All productive land in Eretz Yisrael was to lie fallow during the Shemita, the sabbatical year. (Leviticus 25:1-6) An entire year of “Shabbat” for the land, every seventh year! 

We do not know how strictly this mitzvah was observed during the roughly 1,000 years that Israel controlled the land.  It apparently was observed to a considerable extent during at least some periods: the first-century historian, Josephus, recorded three Shemita year famines during the Second Temple Era!  In any event, the Shemita principle has mainly come down to us as a year off work.  Its purpose is to rest, reflect, recharge, travel, reconsider our goals and actions, and perhaps emerge with new goals prompting us to proceed in new directions.  

Of course, very few of us are actually able to take every seventh year – or any year – off of work. So, modern observance of the sabbatical year from work may be even less than that of our ancestors from land cultivation.  

But this need not stop us from designating every seventh year of our lives as one for more rest, more family time (vs. other activities), more reflection, and more “Am I maximizing my resources to accomplish what’s really important in my life?” goal-setting.  A designated year of chesbon-nefesh: self-accounting. 

Judaism insists that we not go through our days on auto-pilot (i.e. without acknowledging gratitude for our blessings or without praying that they continue, etc.), nor our weeks without resting and reflecting every seventh day.  So, too, even if we can’t “let our fields lie fallow” every seventh year, we shouldn’t let our irreplaceable years expire without rest, reflection, spiritual renewal and, if necessary, commitment to a new direction.

Given that most of us don’t live in Israel and aren’t farmers, and that even historical observance in Israel among farmers is questionable, is Shemita really that important? Rabbi David Lapin, ( a prominent commentator whom I met some years ago and found to be erudite and thoughtful, says: “Through the practice of Shemita more than through any other mitzvah, we define who we are and what the values are that truly drive our choices.” ( 

The next Shemita year, 5775, begins on Rosh Hashanah, September 25, 2014.  Why not begin preparations now?  Consider which adjustments you and your family might make over the next 17 months to make a meaningful Shemita year of some kind possible.  Even if it can’t mean a year “off” from work or a year in Israel with the family, it can mean dedication to a year of more time with loved ones, more Jewish education, and more conscious choices about, to use Rabbi Lapin’s words “who we are and what the values are that truly drive our choices.”  

Only by slowing down to contemplate the "next best alternative" to how we are currently living our lives can we engage in an opportunity-cost analysis for our remaining years.  According to the Jewish calendar, that time is approaching. 

Shabbat shalom!

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