I have come to view COVID-19 as the fallow year. Last year was not a time for planting. It was not a time for plowing. It was a time of letting the earth lie bare and our souls lie bare and our society’s brokenness lie bare.
In our first weeks of immobility, we sat in solitude with our own mortality, while the ground itself literally quieted from our lack of motion. We emerged from our homemade bunkers slowly and deliberately, ready to return to isolation at any moment. Meanwhile, in the quiet of our caution, the cries of our neighbors and loved ones resonated more loudly. Grief and loss were everywhere. Images of the inequities, injustice, violence and death that had always been there flashed with new voracity and visibility. The drought of disruption unearthed our human frailty, the dusty topsoil of false comfort blowing away.
In the sabbath laws of Exodus, six years of cultivation were required with the seventh year being a fallow year. The purpose was not only to let the land itself rest, but also so that “the poor of your people may eat” and after them, so that the “wild animals may eat” (Exodus 23:10-11). Fallow years and sabbath time was all at once a social, religious and political practice. It reminded the people that neither the land itself nor its produce belonged to them; it belonged to God. It also established systems and structures to help address the inequities of that society. Like gleaning in the fields or rest for workers every seventh day, this ancient society understood that it could not function without attending to everyone who was part of it. Everyone needs to eat. Everyone needs to rest. Everyone deserves a place among God’s people.
As we pray that the worst of COVID-19 has passed in our country, few of us are returning to “normal” life unchanged. Tempted though we may be to simply resume our routines, this fallow year has transformed our society in ways we cannot yet understand. It has created gaps that will need careful tending to heal. It has allowed new movements to take root, given root that cannot and should not be plowed under. It has provided us with new views of the prairie, of the cycles and variety, beauty and hardship that make up this land. And as with any sabbath time, it has invited us to recall to whom we, our fields and our fruits actually belong. If we wish to be God’s people, if we truly see this as God’s land, might we walk upon it, share it, treat it differently?
Returning to our pastures with fresh, sabbath-wise eyes, the time is now ripe for the new. May we not sow the same old seeds, but daringly plant righteousness in our land. May we till and water the thick, rich soil of our nation with tenderness and justice, celebrating and supporting all who call this place home. And may we step forward with humility and vulnerability, looking for God to come and rain righteousness upon us.