Behar Bechukotai – It’s Not Ours!

After creating the world and human beings, the Midrash teaches that God takes Adam around the Garden of Eden and says, “Look at My works! […]

After creating the world and human beings, the Midrash teaches that God takes Adam around the Garden of Eden and says, “Look at My works! See how beautiful and extraordinary they are! I make this all for you, but be careful not to destroy my world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”  This Midrash reminds us that all Creation is God’s masterpiece, and that we hold its fate in our hands.

          Imagine re-writing this Midrash for the moment in which we live. Picture God taking us around the earth and looking at the devastation humanity has wreaked.  God shows us the water and air that we have polluted, the impact of released fossil fuels rippling throughout the environment and causing such damage.  I picture God lamenting with pain and anguish: “If you don’t do something, the damage will be beyond repair.”  The environmental damage we are creating is the greatest moral crisis of our times.  We are destroying the world and if we don’t act now, as the Midrash teaches, there will be no way to fix it. The Midrash points us to existential questions:  What type of world are we leaving our children and grandchildren?  What choices will we make so that we can change the course of environmental devastation that defines our present moment?  Don’t we know that our choices right now will ripple into the future in profound ways?

This is not just a political, societal or global crisis; it is a spiritual crisis, and I believe religion can play a key role in helping us address it.  Judaism has much to say about how we treat the environment.  The Creation story, Jewish law, the cycle of holidays, prayers, and mitzvot all reflect a reverence for land and the religious imperative of caring for and protecting the earth.  Judaism teaches that Creation, the world and everything in it, is sacred and we have the awesome responsibility to guard and preserve it: l’shamra/to guard it.  Let’s look at this morning’s portion as we seek to build a spiritual response to this pressing moral issue.

Our orienting belief is that the world is not ours.  Listen to the verse from this week’s portion: “The land shall not be sold in eternity, for the land is mine, for you are sojourners and dwellers with me.” (Leviticus: 25:23).  God owns the lands.  We are just temporary residents, here today and gone tomorrow.  It’s not ours! We can use the land, but we do not own it!  When God creates the world, we are told that our role is l’ovdah/(literally) to serve it; l’shamra/ to protect it. God owns it.   Our job is to serve it, to protect it.  We are to be stewards.

Let’s dig deeper into the spiritual messages of this week’s portion.  We are told that the land is to lie fallow every seven years, the Shmittah year.  We don’t sow or harvest in that year.  Why?  Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch sees this as returning the borrowed world to its Divine Owner so that we realize it is merely lent to us.  It drives home the lesson that the land is not ours.

The Shmittah applies to land what we do every week.  Every Shabbat we stop. The word Shabbat means to cease.  When you study the laws of Shabbat, you discover that the definition of work/melacha, which we are commanded to cease, is any activity in which we transform anything in the environment for our own use.  As we stop interfering with nature and manipulating it for our purposes, we simply appreciate it. Let us reclaim our spiritual legacy of Shabbat as a time to be a peace with nature and one another. Make Shabbat a time to be in nature, walk through a park, admire the flowers and trees, breathe in the fresh air.  We can use our awareness of wonder to re-devote ourselves to protecting our precious earth.  Listen to Abraham Joshua Heshel’s description of Shabbat: “Shabbat is a day of harmony and peace, peace between fellow humans and peace with all things. On the seventh day we have no right to tamper with God’s world, to change the state of physical things.  It is a day of rest of humans and animals alike.”  And as we heighten that deep sense of nature’s precious beauty, we become painfully aware when our actions are destroying that world. It is the spiritual foundation of an environmental ethic that translates into action.

When we let the land rest every seventh year, we drive home the spiritual imperative that the earth is owned by God.  As with our weekly Shabbat, the cessation of sowing and harvesting inspires us and shows us the necessity for societies to be aware of what they are doing. In his book Eco-Bible, Rabbi Yonaton Neril writes: “The mentality and lifestyle of ‘doing’ without regard to ‘being,’ of transforming the natural world without taking time to reflect on the value of that transformation, is taking an environmental toll on the planet.  A society that never rests nor reflects is the same society that over-extracts and over-consumes.  This mastery of the earth without sufficient contemplation of its consequences has produced ecological destruction on the local, regional and global level.”  Weekly Shabbat and the Sabbatical of land remind us we are the custodians of the earth with the responsibility l’shamra u’le’avdah/to serve/work it and to guard it.

As we create a spiritual framework to respond to the environmental crisis that sits before us, we teach the lessons of our Torah portions about causality, our misdeeds having grave consequence.  In brutal language, the Torah teaches that “the land will become a desolation and our cities a ruin.”  The text lifts up these causalities so that our eyes will open and our behavior will change. We recognize the link between our actions and the larger problem; we begin to act.

Perhaps the most powerful spiritual message regarding the environment is that we have the capacity to change.  In this week’s Torah portion, at the end of the section full of devastating consequences, we change.  We confess our wrongdoings, turn back to God, and God accepts us.  At its best, religion instills hope for a different world.  We visualize and realize a world where we care for the environment and live in harmony with nature.

It will require a herculean effort.  Changing direction is not easy and the damage we have done will be hard to undo.  Yet we have no choice.  We are witnessing so many devasting events resulting from our treatment of the environment, occurring with an intensity and a frequency that shows us that we must act now. Our faith, our hopes, and our belief that we can change, strengthen us.  We are also witnessing amazing developments in technology that help address these issues. We are seeing passion, especially among young people, to solve these problems. We are committed in ways that can make a difference in each and every home, in our communities, our country and the world.  In fact, this may be an issue that can bring people together.  There is time to act and time to change.  Let us allow our faith to help us find the passion and purpose to safeguard God’s precious world and to protect the enormous gift we have been given for generations to come.