Rabbi Sarah Tasman on creativity without productivity

Photo courtesy of Rabbi Sarah Tasman

For 5782, Rabbi Sarah Tasman’s New Year’s resolution is to paint more. A couple of weeks ago, the Washington-based rabbi got an easel from a neighbor, bought some art supplies and began to paint for the first time in several years.

Tasman — who is the founder of the Tasman Center for Jewish Creativity, a quasi-synagogue without walls specializing in Jewish mindfulness and creative expression — wasn’t thinking about what she’d paint or what the results would be. She was simply letting herself channel shefa, or divine “flow” as described in kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition.

Her timing, though, was intentional. This is a shmittah year, seventh of the seven-year agricultural cycle as described in the Torah. Although this sabbatical year is biblically a period of the rest for the land, Tasman is one of those who extend the opportunity of letting the land lie fallow to people.

“In our modern interpretation, because we’re outside of the land of Israel, we think about these agricultural beliefs symbolically,” she says. “We have to interpret the meaning in a way that makes sense for our lives.”


How do people observe the shmittah year by lying fallow? Through creativity without productivity, she says.

“This last year and a half has been so challenging for so many people, whether they’re getting sick from COVID or being financially impacted, or their jobs are being impacted,” Tasman says. “There is a real need for some healing this year and to release some of the pressure to produce and do so much.”

In addition, the increasing reliance on Zoom and other digital platforms has increased the opportunity — and the temptation — to record everything. To look at every creative moment as a waste if it isn’t preserved and distributed. Tasman knows this is true for her rabbinical colleagues. But she believes the idea of shmittah can give everyone permission to explore without having a product as the goal.

“We need to step back and find practices that nourish and sustain us individually,” she adds, “so that as a community we can continue to heal the world.”

Tasman first heard about shmittah seven years ago from Nigel Savage, then the CEO of Hazon: the Jewish Lab for Sustainability, a faith-based environmental organization. (In a nod to shmittah, Savage stepped down from his position in August.)

“I got very curious and inspired to think about how to draw out some more personal observance of shmittah, since I’m not a farmer,” Tasman says.

Six months ago, Tasman and Valerie Brown, an intern at the Tasman Center, partnered with Hazon to create a workbook exploring seven core ideas of shmittah: reflection, release, rest, care, connection, thankfulness and closing.

The center offers additional shmittah resources through its online library of meditations, teachings and classes incorporating art and yoga.

Tasman says she has noticed that more Jewish groups are incorporating shmittah into their announcements this year. She attributes this in part to the rise of virtual resources for observing Judaism “in a DIY way.”

“Shmittah really lends itself to more personal practice,” she says. “A lot of organizations want to make sure that people who are at home and might not feel safe yet gathering in communities have their own tools and resources.”

And while shmittah is always “a wonderful idea” for every seventh year, she says it’s especially powerful in 5782.

According to an article published in January by PLOS One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, emerging research suggests that COVID-19 can be understood as a traumatic stressor capable of causing PTSD-like symptoms.

“So many people are feeling burnout and pandemic fatigue, and there’s a lot of trauma from the past year and a half, and even before then too,” Tasman says. “Racial injustice called us to action, which is really important, but we need to balance that action with rest, care and healing so that we can continue to be engaged and do that work.”

By next Rosh Hashanah, Tasman hopes to have created a lot of artwork, to feel grounded and replenished and to see these feelings “reflected in the community.”

“It would be incredible to look back in a year from now and see the impact of this shmittah year.”

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