I am standing in weeds past my knees, tasting young mustard seeds. Mustard, with its small bright-yellow flowers reaching up on spindly stems, has moved into our backyard. Each small seed pod — pointy and narrow and fuzzy — bursts on my tongue. First, there is nothing, and then a tiny explosion of unmistakable mustard flavor.
I am in awe of these scrappy plants that found their way here unbidden. In fact, the whole little walled-in garden behind our rented apartment here in Jerusalem has grown into a tiny patch of wildness.
When we arrived last summer, the garden was a manicured space with a kumquat tree and a bitter-almond tree along one side, a rose bush and some flowering vines down the other side, herbs and smaller plants in between, and geraniums in pots. The whole garden was fitted with an automatic drip sprinkler system and had a nicely graveled space for walking down the middle of it.
Then, as soon as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, arrived, the gardener stopped coming, just as the property managers had warned us he would. This year, 5775 in the Jewish calendar, is a “shmita,” or sabbatical year. As we read in this week’s Torah portion, once we enter the land of Israel, we are to work the land for six years, and in the seventh year we are to let it lie fallow. Sowing fields, pruning vineyards, reaping or harvesting, are all forbidden during this seventh year. Just as Shabbat is a day of rest each week, so the shmita year, the shabbat-year, comes every week-of-years.
The word shmita itself means “letting go”; part of this letting go is that anyone can come and eat anything that happens to be growing on your property. And not just any person, but, as Torah specifies, the fields and vineyards should be left alone so that domesticated animals and wild beasts can help themselves. Whatever grows on your property becomes “hefker,”(ownerless), and any passerby has as much right to eat it as you do. A sign on the gate of a nearby house here in Jerusalem reads, “It’s a shmita year! The fruits in our garden are hefker. Ring the bell for apartment 1 if you want to pick them.”
When we moved in and spoke with the property managers about things like using our credit card to pay for utilities and whether or not we wanted the video-on-demand feature for our television, another of our seemingly mundane activities was figuring out what to do about the garden. The gardener is haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and, by his interpretation of the Torah, no work should be done in the garden during a shmita year.
Our property manager told us that he didn’t want to “pasken” for us — in other words, he wasn’t going to tell us how we ourselves should interpret the Jewish law of the shmita year. We would have to decide whether to tend the garden ourselves, treat it like an agricultural field that lies completely fallow or something in between.
Now, I could say that we were lazy, or I could claim that we were simply being very strict in our interpretation of the Torah’s commandments. Stringency and laziness merged in a shmita worldview — we have completely let this garden go.
The well-tended gravel has proved no match for the mustard seeds blown in from who knows where. Low tangles of vines have crept right across every previously open space. And crowding in next to the rose bush is a collection of funny spiky plants with variegated leaves that looked merely sickly, until the day they shot up and bloomed into their purple thistle glory.
All of it is ownerless and all of it available to be enjoyed by anyone. The kumquats are no more mine than they are yours. And you are welcome to the first green almonds, too — though all my Googling has yielded no firm answer to the question of whether bitter almonds in this young state contain a hazardous amount of cyanide.
The Torah is very clear that the punishment for not allowing the land to rest every seventh year is exile. In other words, we can either give the land her sabbaths while we dwell here, or she will simply take them when we are long gone. Wildness will out.
Reading the story of Creation with which the Torah opens suggests that chaos is the enemy that God’s ordering overcomes. But any God I’d want to believe in also precedes and transcends the order/chaos dichotomy. The Torah works for me because it exists not only to give us rules but to remind us that life itself is rooted in the un-rule-y. Demanding not only a weekly rest from our creative labors, but a sabbatical year for the land itself, acknowledges that the unruly is vital, and that any sense we have of being able to own or control anything is temporary.
This tiny handful of mustard seeds is not enough for a lunch for me, let alone for all my neighbors — but they are plenty to remind me that when we let go of our attempts at cultivating and manipulating and ordering according to our will, we let ourselves be surprised by everything that plants itself in our lives all on its own.