I stepped outside to walk my dog and was greeted by silence. There was no regular rumble of passing cars, no noise of neighbors, it was hushed.
It was the kind of quiet I've come to expect from many years of living in Israel. Days like Yom Kippur, a fall holiday of fasting and atonement, brings a complete standstill to the city. Everyday life is suspended. Kids ride bikes, and people walk down the middle of the busiest roads in Jerusalem with no worry that a car will drive by.
Yom Kippur is a special day of the year, and I have never experienced a day like that outside of Israel. That was until this past Easter Sunday in Salt Lake City, Utah. This day was a remarkable exception, and for the first time, there was a familiar hush that I never expected to experience in the USA.
Amid self-quarantine and stay-at-home mandates, the holiest day of the Christian year mimicked the most sacred day of the Jewish—streets empty, cars missing, birds chirping—everything at a standstill.
Living in a culture where the three monotheistic religions focus on a day of rest once a week, the idea of a Sabbath is not new to me. Even so, I have continuously circled back to this idea of Sabbath rest in this season of COVID-19.
More and more, I have realized that this time is not like other days of rest.
It stands alone, presenting new and difficult challenges. I make my living as a teacher for visitors to the land of the Bible. I teach an introduction to the history, geography, and culture of the Bible. I am a writer and producer. All of this work operates more in a project format than in a traditional 9 to 5.
As a freelancer, taking a day off once a week can be a challenge, but I know that as soon as the day is over, I'm back at it and more than likely won't miss too many opportunities.
But these days, I wake up knowing that all of my gigs are gone—scattered to the winds, and it is unclear when they will come back.
How long will I be out of work? A few months? A year? An abrupt dependence on the Lord's provision for all my needs has swiftly moved from romantic theory to a harsh reality. My reality has changed, and with it, my prayer life.
Over and over again, my mind has wandered to one idea that I have rarely considered—the sabbath year.
The Hebrew Bible commands that for every 6 years of working the land the 7th year should be set aside and working the land should cease (Exodus 23:10-11), all slave owners must free their slaves (Jeremiah 34:13-14) and outstanding debts should be annulled (Deuteronomy 15:1-6).
The Hebrew Bible announced that if the people did not keep this 7th-year Sabbath that they would be scattered, and the land would lay desolate until the rest years that it was owed would be fulfilled.
There is little evidence that the Israelites kept this sabbath year mandate. In fact, in 586 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, and the book of Chronicles connects this destruction event and exile of the people away from the land with the forsaking of the sabbath year. Who can blame them?
Letting the land lie fallow, annulling debts, and freeing a needed labor force would certainly be disastrous for the accumulation of personal wealth and may have seemed irresponsible.
Regardless, the command was part of the ethical requirement for these ancient people. As I've meditated on this command in this unique time, I see the commandments falling into three basic categories of focus—environmental stewardship, economic balance, and intentional concern for others well being.
The sabbath year forced people to focus on environmental stewardship.
It gave them time and space to focus on the needs of the land, the wild animals that needed it to survive, and to elevate the poor to the status of a landowner.
You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat just as you do, and whatever is leftover can be eaten by wild animals. Exodus 23:10-11
The Sabbath year was also a deliberate leveler, bringing economic balance to the community and not allowing one person to rise above everyone else. It was an opportunity for those who were under the heavy burden of debt to be released from such bondage.
"At the end of every seven years, you shall grant a release. 2 And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord's release has been proclaimed" (Deuteronomy 15:1-2).
Finally, it cleared a path to refocus on community and especially on the weak and vulnerable. It commanded the people to care for other people and not harden their hearts to each other.
If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. 9 Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, 'The seventh year, the year of release is near,' and your eye look grudgingly[a] on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. 10 You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.' Deuteronomy 15:7-11
The Sabbath year brought people together and reminded them of some of their most basic realities and responsibilities— the stewardship of the earth, the physical care for the community, and the dignity of man while also enforcing a total dependence on the provision of the Lord.
And if ye shall say: 'What shall we eat the seventh year? Behold, we may not sow, nor gather in our increase'; then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years. And ye shall sow the eighth year, and eat of the produce, the old store; until the ninth year, until she produces come in, ye shall eat the old store. Leviticus 25:20–22
COVID-19 has reset the world and reset my life. Like a sabbath year, it has changed things and established new normals.
We've all seen the stories of the clear non-polluted skies and the resurgence of wildlife. Stories of Good Samaritans, of heroism by medical personnel on the frontlines have been peppering my Facebook and Instagram feed.
The devastation of this disease is a tragedy at the highest levels. And yet, it has also offered a special time of reflection and perspective. When I've asked friends and family what they've been learning through this time, I've been encouraged by what I've heard.
More than anything else, what I keep hearing is how people are refocusing. Some are focusing on needed time with family, others on friends in need, and some on neighbors.
And as we continue to move through this season, perhaps the Bible's Sabbath Year can be an example of where to refocus ourselves—on the stewardship of the earth, on the needy in our communities, and on elevating the dignity of our fellowman.