This week's portion: borrowed
Anticipating Shavuot

The importance of tending the earth (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

Parashat Behukkotai begins with a promise and a threat. The promise: if we follow God's laws and observe God's commandments, we will get rain in its season, our silos will overflow with abundance, we will know peace, and God will dwell in our midst. The threat: if we don't obey and observe the commandments, well... we should expect misery, consumption, fever, defeat, the skies to be like iron and the earth like copper, no produce nor fruit, wild beasts devouring our cattle, and even when we eat bread we shall not be satisfied.

Then, the Torah tells us, "shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies." In other words, the commandment God is so desperate for us not to break -- the one which, broken, will yield not only destruction and sorrow for us, but a self-healing process on the part of the wronged party -- is the one from the start of parashat Behar, about ensuring a sabbatical year for the land.

The sages of the Rabbinic era, powerless to ensure this commandment's fulfillment, argued that it only comes into effect in the land of Israel. (Once exiled from that land, the Jews were effectively exempt from the obligation until such time as a return could be effected.) And though some modern-day thinkers argue that we should reestablish it now that there is a Jewish state in that place, the dominant opinion is the sabbatical and Yovel (jubilee) only hold when the majority of the world's Jews live in Israel. (Not very helpful for those of us dedicated to a Diaspora existence.) Others argue that they will be followed in the Messianic Age, but clearly we're not there yet.

Given the many paragraphs devoted to the consequences of following (or not following) these laws in this week's parasha, I'm not sure any of the above arguments is really satisfactory.

What to do with this text? We might find it instructive to look at various interpretations of the second paragraph of the Shema, which articulates a similar theology. The prayer's Jewish Virtual Library page offers the traditional text and some commentary on it. Here's the excerpt I'm thinking of:

It shall be, that if you obey My commandments that I command you this day to love the Lord your God and serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, then will I send the rain for your land in its season, the early [autumn] rain and the late [spring] rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. And I will provide grass in your field for your cattle, and you shall eat and be sated. Be careful that your heart be not tempted and you turn away to serve other gods and bow to them. For then God will be furious with you and will block the heavens and there will be no rain and the land will not yield its produce, and you will perish quickly from the good land that God gives you.

How is this paragraph understood within liberal Judaism? Not literally. It doesn't have to be understood as an expression of direct karmic theology -- it can be descriptive rather than proscriptive.

Many liberal communities opt for an interpretive English translation alongside a rendering of the traditional text. (Online I found one by Rabbi Arthur Waskow; I've seen others by my own rabbi, by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, and by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.) The interpretive versions affirm that this passage can, and should, be read as metaphor. We need not read this passage as an assertion that famine is the result of lapsed observance. Instead, the second paragraph of the Shema can tell us that if we act in accordance with love of God, in a spirit of service, then we will derive spiritual abundance from our lives and we will find satisfaction. God's fountain of shefa is primed by our love, attention, and right action; when we turn away from God, we cut ourselves off from the Source of blessing.

This dance of interpretation can serve us well with this week's parasha, too. Enacting the laws of the sabbatical and Yovel year would be deeply difficult in today's world. Can you imagine the banks which hold credit debtors in thrall cancelling all debts every fiftieth year? Can you imagine a world in which everyone agreed that all abundance comes from, and truly belongs to, the Holy Blessed One and we are merely the world's stewards during our fleeting lives, with no genuine ownership of the land to which we lay claim? (Yeah. Me neither. Sadly.)

But when we read this week's portion metaphorically, we find teachings that can inform our lives even in today's world. Torah tells us that we must care for the earth in which we are planted -- that this commandment is the very ground of our ethics, and of our prosperity. Just as we must afford human beings the chance to rest each week, to connect with holiness and to experience joy, we must afford the earth a regular chance to rest, and must treat it as a holy creation of our holy God. If we do these things, we will know deep abundance -- both literally (because earth well-tended produces more and better fruits) and spiritually (because treating the earth wisely and well puts us in a different relationship with the ground upon which we walk...and the ground of being Who sustains us.)

And if we don't? If we overwork and poison the earth? Famine and disease are bound to come...and perhaps when the human race is weakened and shrunk by epidemics and scarcity, the earth will wrest its rest from us. Torah gives us a clear choice, one that's borne out by our knowledge of planetary ecology. Who among us wouldn't choose restfulness, and abundance, and life?