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This week's portion: a Shabbat for the earth

Here's the d'var Torah I'll offer tomorrow morning at my shul; if you're joining us for Shabbat morning services (which I'll be co-leading with two dear rabbinic school friends, Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser and David Curiel) you might want to skip this post so you can hear the d'var fresh!

When I teach this Torah portion, the exhortation to let the land lie fallow every seventh year (the shmittah year) and then to let it lie fallow again in the 50th year, the yovel (usually translated as Jubilee), someone always asks: was this ever really done?

Short answer: I don't know. Some say yes. Some say no. Some point to the rabbinic argument that these laws are meant to be followed only under very specific circumstances, e.g. when the majority of the world's Jews once again live in the land of Israel.

But I think the question misses the point. When it comes to Torah, I'm just not that interested in whether or not these stories "ever happened." Instead, I want to ask: what can this text teach us about our people's core values, about our ongoing struggle to lead righteous and meaningful lives?

The Torah tells us, quite clearly, that the earth deserves a Shabbat just as we do. Just as we do all our work for six days, and take the seventh day as a Shabbat to Adonai, a "sanctuary in time," a space of holiness in which we assert that there is something more meaningful than the bottom line -- the earth, too, lives by these same cycles.

We sanctify time by marking it out and measuring it. Right now we're counting the seven weeks of the Omer, the 49-day journey from Pesach to Shavuot, freedom to revelation, which culminates in the 50th day, Shavuot itself. Torah teaches us that the earth, too, lives by these same cycles. We think in terms of days and weeks; for the earth, which lives in geologic time, the counting is in sevens of years.

We may not be able to imagine letting the entire earth lie fallow for one year out of seven -- for two years in a row when the cycle of seven sevens is complete! -- but we can learn from this week's Torah portion that the earth is made holy through rest, just as we are. Maybe this is Torah's version of the Gaia Hypothesis, the theory that all life on earth is closely interconnected into one inconceivably complicated organic system -- that the whole earth is a living being, and we are its cells.

Letting our fields lie fallow is good farming practice. But the Hasidic rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev argues, in a text we'll read today during our Torah study, that we're commanded to let the earth rest not only because it's good for production -- just as we rest on Shabbat not only because it feels nice -- but because it's a mitzvah. A commandment. We do these things because God told us to.

The paradigm of "commandedness" may not be the most comfortable one for us. In modernity, and maybe especially at the liberal end of the Jewish world, we may bristle at the notion of doing something "because I told you so."

But my teachers in Jewish Renewal have given me another understanding of the word mitzvah. In Aramaic, sister language to Hebrew, mitzvah means connection. Perhaps, then, we can understand a mitzvah as a connective act: something which connects us to one another, to our tradition, to our understanding of holiness, to our aspirations for a better and healthier and holier world.

We give ourselves, and our planet, the gift of regular rest not just because it seems like a nice idea, but because it's a mitzvah: a connection. It connects us up to the source of all blessing, and when that connection is real and sturdy and alive, abundance can flow into us and into our world.

Crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.