Shmita Reflections Inspired by the Shoresh Food Conference

Shmita Reflections Inspired by the Shoresh Food Conference
By Lauren Stein

The Torah mandates that every seventh year we leave the fields of Israel fallow ( This means taking a rest from the hard work of pruning, planting, and harvesting, so the land can restore itself.

    Clearly this is specific to the lives of farmers in a largely agricultural society. But looked at from the perspective of this contemporary Canadian writer -- what if that rule applied to other kinds of back-breaking labour? What if it meant not doing work you don't enjoy, or work you only do because you think your life depends on it? Like the commandment to rest on Shabbat, what if this rest is as much about recharging our souls as it is about the ground? In the information economy of twenty-first century living, does this Torah principle apply only to the Israeli farmers among us -- or is it based on a universal truth meant to be interpreted by all?

    What would our society look like if we took a pause for one year out of seven from the way we look at and engage in the world? Would our ideas grow fresher, richer?

    What would it feel like to walk down the street in a land where every single person is taking the year off to rest, re-evaluate, rejuvenate, explore, and discover their passions? How would we interact with each other? Would we break free from our Torontonian bubbles and make eye contact, perhaps even -- dare I say it -- smile at each other? Perhaps new stresses would overtake us and prevent us from going out. Or maybe we would finally get around to seeing the sights, connecting with the people, and doing the things we are always meaning to do.

    What if, for one year, all teachers (and life-long students) took a sabbatical from analysing our world and living in our heads? Imagine if we spent that time in a Montessori-like quest to feel knowledge in our bodies, to express our thoughts through the arts, to live in the moment without quantifying it. Would we return to our essays and research with new insights? I wonder if there would be a shift in the types of questions we seek to investigate. When we return to work, could we better integrate non-rational fields, such as emotional life or spirituality, into our calculations?

    What if all the computer programmers, indeed anyone whose job relied on computers, amongst us took off one year out of seven? Would the prescription of our glasses lighten as we spent less time with screens in front of our eyes? Would we see the world differently as a result of being restricted to interacting with people face to face?

    Imagine if we took a societal workforce that was geared towards working hard until age 65 and expected to spend the years after that playing golf, and reframed it into an attitude of working a job you loved so much you never wanted to stop. And instead of one long retirement until death do you part, taking a "retirement break" every seven years so you still had that the time to travel, go on a spiritual quest, or focus exclusively on your family. Would you best utilise that time to "find yourself" and explore what makes you happy? Perhaps you would feel the satisfaction of finally working on all those niggling projects or ideas you always wished you could do. Maybe the much-needed break would help your priorities with making the most of those other six years. Might you resent your boss or your job less? Or perhaps leave your job or current situation, having seen better possibilities and knowing that you are capable of something else?

    Would this change your perspective? In a culture that emphasises efficiency -- I wonder if you might function more efficiently as a result when you do return. Would your life be richer, your fields appear lusher?

    It might be difficult now to see whether this would be beneficial. In fact, it could take several cycles of Shmita years before it makes a positive impact. The good news is, there are experts who have already tried it. You can hear about their results in designer Stefan Stagmeister's TED talk here:

    Let's pretend you just found out that from September 2014 until September 2015 you had to stop your job, your regimented studies, your farming, or whatever kinds of fields you are overplowing, and give your (mental) land a rest. How would you spend that time?

Reflections on the Shoresh Food Conference

We asked some friends to share their thoughts and experiences of the Food Conference for the Blog and are grateful for their responses and for the confirmation that all of our efforts were fruitful and worthwhile.

Here's what folks had to say:

A New Discourse

If I were to sum up the Shoresh conference in one word I would say the word discourse. If given another word, I would say interpretation. So much of what we take from the Torah is mired in complexity and hidden meanings. It is a puzzle. At times it can be extremely vague or can be referring to periods of time and events that occurred thousands of years ago. It is therefore up to us to interpret what we can of the Torah to make it applicable to us today, to the situations we find ourselves in and the challenges we face. Today, some of our concerns revolve around sustainable agriculture, humane treatment of animals, healthy lifestyles and communities, and other social and environmental values. The Torah holds a wealth of information and guidance surrounding these things for us to understand and interpret in ways that no previous generation could. For example, we can find valuable meaning in seemingly unimportant passages about empty space and pastureland surrounding ancient Levitical cities, and apply them to our pressing needs for green space and farmland surrounding our cities today. Many of the passages are wonderfully vague and can be interpreted in a thousand different ways. What is important is that we see the issues of our day and try to find meaning in these passages through discussion and dialogue to address them. With this organization and discourse, we will then be willing and motivated to act and start making changes in our lives and in the lives of people around us! This is exactly what Shoresh is doing. The conference was comprised of people from an array of different backgrounds, of different experiences and educations, which allowed for rich discourse over the subjects we all came to discuss. I am grateful for that.
By: Josh Black

Getting to the Root of Things

For me, this conference is a gathering of people within the community and beyond.  It creates a space and an opportunity for all of us to come together to learn, discuss and address topics of food, agriculture, and our own relationship as human beings to the land through the lens of the Torah as well as through the lens of consciousness.  It is a chance for diverse groups of people, such as educators, foodies, artists, health practitioners, caterers, to come together, meet each other and build a network of shared intentions, address important topics and generate foresight.

Shoresh reflects the essence of ‘getting to the root’ of the topic.  We all build from the ground up and letting it grow into something that everyone benefits from.  I have attended both conferences and it has been incredible to be a part of many presentations, but for me one really stood out.  I was energized by enthusiastic presentation made by Risa Alyson Cooper regarding all the projects Shoresh has been working on over the past few year.  It has been an honour to witness how all these seeds they have planted have sprouted into fascinating projects from the Kavanah Garden to Bela Farm.  Their work is inclusive for every age group and background.  It emphasized how things manifest because of people’s belief in the idea and with the right care, water, nutrients and love they can grow into amazing things.

Thank you, Risa and Sabrina, for all your dedication, passion and hard work that goes into ‘laying the land’ for all of us to grow prosperously in the Shoresh garden- a community for all of us.  I truly am inspired by both of you and your work and I look forward to what’s to come in the future.
By: Lauren Lyons

Hearts and Minds

The Shoresh Food Conference was a powerful convergence of hearts and minds.  The people who gathered on Sunday crossed denominational lines and spanned two, if not three generations.  The conference felt more like a call to concrete action than any I’d been to before.  This was no in-gathering of scattered wandering Jews: these are rooted people from the same community with shared interests and ideals, and they came together with a mission.  The Shoresh Food Conference was a day of change, a day for these rooted individuals to set the groundwork for integrating their shared values into the experienced reality of Toronto Judaism.
By: Yael Greenberg

The Importance of Community

Who knew that bees wiggled their bums in a dance for their fellow hive members to deliver the coordinates to the tastiest nectar around.  If it were kosher I’d be doing my own waggle dance to attract the Toronto Jewish community to the next Shoresh food conference, but I’m sure they won’t need it as word spreads of how great this year’s was.

To me a great event is one that beautifully stimulates the senses and the mind, and leaves me with a meaningful experience to remember.  The Shoresh conference did just that.  The content and speakers were relevant and current, discussion was thought provoking and challenging, and the food was beyond my expectations; delicious and nourishing to the core.  I’ll be recommending the caterer to anyone looking for future events.  But what stood out to me the most and touched my heart was the gathering of the community and the truest pluralistic Jewish experience I have yet to be a part of.

Views were challenged, minds expanded and new friendships were made as our vibrant and diverse Jewish community came together over what better a topic…the future of our food.

Thank you Shoresh for bringing us together and making it all happen.
By: Tamar Krauss