Behar Bechukotai – What Story Will We Tell?

Let’s be partners in creating a story of shifting priorities and acting for the greater good.

Behar Bechukotai – What Story Will We Tell?

I imagine that years from now, people will write about this time as a pivotal moment in history. What will they say? What did we learn? How are things different? Honestly, it is too soon to know the answers to these questions. The losses being experienced require our focus to be on comforting one another and being present as best we can amidst pain. And at the same time, we are reflecting on what we are learning and how might things change and re-orient as we slowly and gradually emerge.

As part of the reflection we turn to tradition, and the values of Torah which allow us to reflect within the prism of sacred values that we apply to this moment and into the future. This week’s portion, Behar Bechukotai, is full of wisdom guiding us as we continue to walk through unprecedented times and to reflect upon what might be.
A key teaching is shmita – we plant and sow for six years, and in the seventh year, we let the land lie fallow. Put yourself in the place of the farmer, reflect on the implications of an entire year of doing things radically differently. We stopped working. We didn’t sow or prune, and according to the text “it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.” Apparently the land needs Shabbat. Why? What does that teach us? How might we apply our interpretations?

One explanation of shmita is that land and soil need to regenerate. Agronomists have shown it to be true – but right now the deeper lesson of allowing the earth to regenerate by letting it rest is even more evident and relevant. We are witnessing a regeneration of nature, and a healing of the environment that is spectacular – pollution has subsided in significant ways, damage we thought irreversible has begun to self-correct. Will we emerge post corona aware of how our behavior so negatively impacted our environment? Will we stop trampling and exploiting to the point where pollution and environmental damage defined each day – or will this moment open our eyes and change our behavior? I pray that in decades to come, a piece of the story that is told is how we realigned ourselves with caring for our environment and realizing the devastation we created. But it requires us to reflect, to learn, to advocate – to emerge differently – and that will take hard work.

Weave into the lesson of awareness of regeneration, a theology regarding land. Another explanation of the shmita is that not working the land for a year reminds us that the land is not ours, but God’s. In Leviticus 25:23, God explicitly says, “The Land is Mine.” Think about that! If it belongs to God – we are not the owners – free to do whatever we please. We are stewards and guardians of God’s land and therefore have to devote ourselves to protecting it. If we allow Jewish tradition to respond to this moment and move us to the future, is would tell us to embrace the humility of saying the world is not ours to do with as we please – it is ours to protect. Will we look back and see this time as an opportunity to reset our relationship with God’s world?

As we see shmita in a different way than I ever have before, go back to the experience of the farmer. Imagine how difficult it must have been to stop working the land – to cease that which brings economic prosperity – because there is a greater good. We too are learning that sometimes we have to sacrifice over a long period of time for a greater good. We may want to go out, to see people and get back to work. We don’t want to wear masks, be distanced or stuck in the house. We miss our friends and our loved ones! The cost is so high– yet like the farmer of old – we sacrifice our immediate interest for a prolonged period of time for a greater good.

Embedded in action defined by the greater good is an ethic of WE rather than I. We are learning that our actions can respond to this terrible pandemic in ways the save lives. Will we look back and say that the story of this time was that the greater good of preventing pandemic transcended personal desires and self interest? Right now the story is still being written. Let’s continue to sacrifice for the greater good. Let’s advocate for a policy placing the greater good over personal desires. Then the story that will be written will be of sacrifice for a cause that transcended our own liberty.

And might the story that we write as we look back be one of finding blessing as we were forced to slow down and turn inward. As the ancient farmers turned from their daily toils for an entire year, I imagine that many discovered or re-discovered passions they were unaware of and connections that deepened beyond previous experience. So many of you have shared extraordinary stories of the blessings of slowing down amidst these difficult times. Some have planted gardens, learned musical instruments, read books, learned hobbies, gone on longer walks, connected in deeper ways with friends and reconnected with old friends. Jewish educator Ron Wolfson wrote that pre-corona virus he would receive and send short emails – who had time for anything more? But now he is writing and receiving longer notes – deepening relationships. Might shmita have caused the farmer to realize he or she is not defined by the work – but by soul, essence, friendship, connection? Before this year, I had never read this portion and imagined the opportunity it provided the farmer to explore that part inner piece – allowing for quiet, and listening to the whispers of soul. Will a piece of the story we write about this time be one where we reflect on the opportunity to be with ourselves, to explore relationships and deepen connection in ways that changed us forever?

When we read about the laws of shmita in the book of Exodus, we learn that during the shmita year, the poor have access to our fields. Letting the land lie fallow helps us construct a society where those who are in need receive help. Shmita is about interconnectedness and empathy. It made us see and respond to those in need. As this virus stops us in our tracks, we have become deeply aware of those in need on so many levels – from the elderly to the economically disadvantaged and so many others. Will we emerge and move forward in a way that accounts for all of humanity? Will the story that is written be one of how our eyes opened to inequities and injustice that were real, so that we made systemic changes which reoriented us to one another? Will a key take away be the development of empathy as a defining truth?

As we imagine what might emerge down the line, there is no question but that a piece of the story we must tell, will be of loss, anxiety, sadness and grief. Sit with those realities so that they become part of the stories we tell. Those pieces of story need to lift up. They are too real to overlook – and too often they are.

And, at the same time, begin to think about the other stories you hope will emerge:

stories of caring for the environment,
stories of humility,
stories of interconnectedness,
stories that reflect the shift from I to WE,
stories of personal growth, and introspection,
stories of seeing suffering and addressing it.

Stories begin with reflection and intention. This story will be written by us – our voices matter. Let’s be partners in creating a story of shifting priorities and acting for the greater good. Let’s not get distracted by bumps in the road and those who undermine this vision. Act with passion and conviction so that we can take the laws of shmita and integrate them into an inspiring and irresistible story of what we want to create – so that is the story that is told. Imagine what is possible and allow the roadmap from the past to help us to reset the future. May we find the wisdom, courage and leadership to bring this story and these values to life as the lessons of this pandemic are reflected upon in years to come.