Could you give up shopping for a year?
In a 2017 New York Times article, author Ann Patchett wrote about her endeavor to do just that. At the start of the experiment, she created a list of rules for herself: she could purchase groceries, go out to restaurants, and replace any product that she had used up, but only after ensuring that she didn’t have an extra lying around the house. The results were astonishing. In lieu of running to the store to buy a new lip balm, she opened her cabinet to discover that she already owned five. She saved countless hours, as her two-day searches for a perfect new outfit were now out of the question. She expressed her love in meaningful ways, offering to clean a friend’s home or to watch their child instead of purchasing them an item of clothing. It turns out that gifts of time can be more valuable than those of money.
Though we live in a society largely focused on material consumption, Patchett quickly adjusted to her new lifecycle. “It doesn’t take so long for a craving to subside,” she reflected. “Once I got the hang of giving shopping up, it wasn’t much of a trick. The trickier part was living with the startling abundance that had become glaringly obvious when I stopped trying to get more…I could see what I already had, and what actually mattered.” Indeed, her life changed in such incredible ways that she has yet to end her experiment.
But 3,000 years before Patchett’s experiment the Torah taught us about the joys of limiting our frantic consumption. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Behar, we receive an interesting set of instructions about agriculture in the Land of Israel:
“When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Eternal. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Eternal” (Lev. 25:2-5).
Much as modern industrial societies center around consumption, the society of ancient Israel revolved around agriculture. To suspend all agriculture for an entire year must have seemed unimaginable to the Israelites. Indeed, in next week’s Torah portion, God outlines the harsh punishments for violating the laws of the sabbatical year (called shemita in Hebrew), showing us just how tempting it was to keep farming, to keep producing, even when God said to stop. God also anticipates the very real concern of how the people will sustain themselves during this seventh year: “And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years” (Leviticus 25:20-22).
Millenia later, we now know the practical wisdom of this policy, as research and experience has shown that over-farming leads to soil erosion, habitat loss, and water waste. Land that is over-farmed will eventually become arid, and the soil will be unable to sustain the growth of crops. But there is a spiritual purpose to the shemita system as well. By ceasing production for an entire year, the Israelites were able to discover and appreciate the abundance that already existed in their lives. They could eat what they had harvested in past years, and it would be enough. They could curb their desire to consume without end. They could honor the needs of the land, and thereby honor themselves.
Our impulse to consume is not unique to the modern era; humans have always wanted the latest and greatest version of anything, from wheat and grapes to phones and fashions. But the Torah reminds us that there are times to stop pursuing the next best thing. We already have the bounty we need, if we only stopped seeking, stopped searching, and simply noticed.