There’s a beautiful new wooden ship, built in the year 1800 that goes out to sea on a journey.
When it returns, the crew discovers that some of the shipboards in the hull are damaged.
So they replace them. Then head out on their next journey.
Months later, the ship and its crew return to port. After so long at sea, some of the hull has started to rot.
So the crew replaces the wood, and readies it to go back out to sea.
And just like this, year after year, the ship goes off on its journeys, returning back to port safely, where its upkeep is maintained with care.
After many decades in service, the wooden boards of the ship have been replaced so many times. It’s now the year 1900, and there is not a single part of the ship that was original to its building.
Here’s the question:
Is the ship in 1900 the same ship as the one that was built in 1800, if no parts of it are the same?
This is a famous thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus, after it’s ancient Greek origins.
There’s lots of fun variations:
John Locke imagined what would happen to his favourite pair of socks, if he had to continually patch its holes over and over again until all of the fabric of the originals had been replaced with patches. Are they the same pair of socks?
George Washington’s famous axe is the subject of an apocryphal story: is it still George Washington’s axe, if both its head and handle have been replaced?
Here’s a doozy of a different version:
The cells of your body each have their own lifetimes. Skin cells last two to three weeks. Red blood cells – four months, white blood cells – more than a year. Over the course of every seven years or so, your body’s cells have completely regenerated.
The body you’re in now is not the same as it was then.
Here’s the kicker:
Are you truly the same person?
We’re creatures that change. We grow. We leave parts of ourselves behind. We go through the messy, complicated journey of becoming who we want to be, despite all of the obstacles that life can throw at us.
And boy are we living though a time of obstacle right now.
I took an informal poll on Facebook today of all the changes people are making
The little ones:
- How we get dressed to go out
- How we walk around the house
- How consume our food more thoughtfully
- Baking bread
- Praying modeh ani and asher yatzar in the morning
- Attending to our mental health
- Daily flossing
But also the big ones, the routines we’ve left behind:
- How we go outside
- How we earn our livelihood
- Who we can and can’t touch
I wonder… if we change so much, little by little… is it possible we could get to a point when we’re not the same as we once were?
We feel the same along the way, because the changes seem manageable:
I can’t go grocery shopping, but I can still have food delivered.
I can’t be with my colleagues at work, but we’ve figured it out remotely.
I can’t visit my family, but I can still see them on zoom.
But how long can this last, before we’ve left are real selves far behind?
Are we like the Ship of Theseus – setting off to sea so many times, that at some point, we finally come back an entirely different entity?
That worry is at the heart of so much of our anxiety in this moment – How much is too much?
It’s at the core of those at home in isolation, worrying: Have I changed beyond what is recognizable even to me?
It’s at the core of those on the front lines, worrying: Is this the day I bring something bad into my home?
It’s at the core those who look in the mirror and just want a haircut.
It’s even at the core of those who desperately want to see the economy reopen at any cost, worrying: how much longer can we last before we have nothing to return to?
Some of these worries might seem irrational. Petty.
But like most anxieties, rationality has little to do with it.
The worry is still real.
The Torah this week teaches about a similar long-term change, that sparked anxiety and worry:
Every seven years, the land – the earth, the source of our sustenance – is entitled to rest. Just like we have shabbas every seven days; every seven years the land gets it’s own shabbas – the shmitah. And the commandment is explicit: every six years you can sow, and prune, and harvest. But every seven years, it is a time of complete rest.
It’s a time of agricultural regeneration.
Like the rebuilding of the shipboards.
Or the renewal of our cells.
Just like all life, agriculture operates on its own cycles of change.
The shmitah seems like a change rooted in absence: a time of what we can’t do and what we’ve lost.
But shmitah is actually a reminder of presence: Of that which is unchanging.
וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר׃ V’charm’cha, lo tizmor prune your vineyard (Lev. 25:4) – don’t)
Don’t cut life off from its source – instead, draw attention to the source. To the roots.
That’s the hidden idea in the Torah: Even if the land seems to be changed; even if the microorganisms in the soil live, die, and regenerate; even if we’ve spent six years pruning and harvesting and changing… there are roots that stay. Something unchanging. Something eternal.
Right now, it feels like little pieces of ourselves are being pruned back.
All the little things we’ve been forced to give up and change.
We wonder: Will we be the same, once we’re entirely thinned back?
We already know that when we emerge from this shmitah – this time of fallowness – the world is going to look different.
But what about ourselves? What’s on the other side of this moment of withdrawal?
But also rootedness.
The land is the same land – deserving of the same care, attention, and rest.
As we are –
But the same.
Deserving of the same care, attention, and rest.
That’s why the Torah teaches: lo tizmor. Don’t prune. Don’t cut things back. Don’t uproot.
It’s not a time of disconnection. It’s a time of nurturing connections. Of nurturing what is unchanging.
Which is why even at the end of all of this, there will be a part of us that remains the same.
The part of us that is eternal – which only has to be given a break every now and then, within something that is eternal.
It turns out, your brain’s neurons – those tiny specialized cells designed to make connections – they stay with you for your entire life.
It turns out, as the Irish Priest-Poet-Philosopher John O’Donohue beautifully evokes:
“You may not be able to do much about the great problems of the world or to change the situation you are in, but… you can awaken the eternal beauty and light of your soul.”
That’s why we need shabbas and shmitah.
Not to remind us what we’ve lost.
But to remind us of what stays the same.