God warns us of the consequences of not listening: “I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish…” (Lev. 26:16).
This seems harsh, but there are some issues that we desperately need to tackle as human beings and Jews. The Jew has never shied away from challenging discussion, and we certainly will not today. To begin, we have seen massive deforestation for purposes of creating timber, urban development and non-expensive agricultural use. It is thought by many scientists that human movement into wild territory might even have contributed to the spread of many viruses, including our current “consumption and fever,” COVID-19. As animals interact with one another and humans in an unnatural manner, the possibility for the emergence of foreign pathogens goes up. Climate change and the melting of the ice caps linger. The list could go on and on. Are there corners of the earth untouched by humankind’s arrogance? Human beings have stripped the gift of our earth to her very core, and she, being more powerful than we, will take back control. Also, it is estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that 815 million people worldwide are the victims of food undernourishment. That is approximately one in every ten people, with most of these individuals living in what we refer to as “developed” countries. We see modern slavery in the form of human trafficking, forced labor, and domestic servitude. American wealth inequality is nefarious at best. To put it simply: earth and those that inhabit her are exhausted.
The ancients knew the risk of exhaustion. God himself rested on the seventh day and made it holy. In parshah Behar, we are exposed to the idea of the “Sabbath-year.” God said, “Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land” (Lev. 25:3-4). According to Perles of the Hertz Chumash, the freedom of the individual is a fundamental principle of the Torah, as is the freedom of the land from absolute ownership of man. God made it very clear that every seventh year, the land should be used primarily for the feeding of the poor who needed it, and the wild animals who would come across it. This is similar to our prior discussion regarding leaving the corner of the field unharvested, yet, in this case, an entire year should be dedicated to allowing the earth that God has given us to take a break from the strains that human beings put upon her.
In Leviticus 25:23, God says, “…The land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me.” We as human beings, contrary to how many would think and behave in the modern world, do not own the land. We have settled upon the land that has been provided to us by the Divine, and we must respect it, cherish it, and allow it time to reflect, recoup, and re-energize. As we force our way into the wilderness, are we doing so in order to take what we need to sustain us? Are we doing it out of greed? When smog lifts from a city after 7 weeks of semi-isolation to reveal a blue sky previously veiled, we know that the earth is feeling the negative impact of our presence. We pour salt in her wounds, and she is upset. We must listen.
We must remember the Sabbath-year. How can we be a partner in giving the earth a respite? What can we do? Perhaps we can be more mindful of where our food is coming from. We can reduce our emissions, and truly commit to protecting the land God created. Remember, the Torah begins with: “Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz” In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. This earth that God created must be respected and protected. It is written that Flavius Josephus said of the Jewish people, “As for us we do not delight in merchandise, but having a fruitful country for our habitation…” (c. Apion. I. 12). We have been given all of the ingredients to survive and thrive here on earth…have we misused and abused this privilege for material gain? Why, with all of our technology and widespread overdevelopment, are 815 million people hungry in this world? Something is not right.
We live in a country where the 400 wealthiest Americans own more of the country’s bounty than the 150 million Americans who represent the bottom 60 percent of the wealth distribution. Believe it or not, the Torah provides specific safeguards against exactly this. Enter the “jubilee year.” To put it concisely, God commanded that every fifty years, or after 7 cycles of Sabbath-years, all slaves would be freed along with their families, and property would return to its owner of origin. While some particular caveats existed, the jubilee year was meant to serve as a safeguard against crippling generational poverty, and to prevent the majority of properties from being monopolized by the hands of an elite few. The Talmud tells us very simply, “Wealth in abundance–bad; in moderation–good” (B. Git 70a), or “The more you get, the more you fret” (Avot. 2:7). Does this sound all too familiar? Too few seem to have too much, while most have too little. While human trafficking and egregious forms of slavery still exist in this country–what of the single parent working paycheck-to-paycheck who is underinsured, underpaid, and overworked? Is this not a form of slavery as well?
To be Jewish is to understand that we are to work with the precious earth we have been given, not against her wishes. We must find a way to provide the earth with something akin to a Sabbath-year again, even in our own micro fashion. We must also look to our neighbors and how we are treating them. Even the slave of the Torah was treated with more respect and dignity than some of our modern workers. In God’s eyes, we are all “…servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 25:42). We do not own the earth or her people. Hunger must cease, the earth must rejuvenate, the wealth be distributed, and the modern slave be freed.
As we are currently forced to give the earth her Sabbath, we must reflect upon these challenges in order to improve. What we were doing before was not working–has God responded? How will we answer? As our Mishkan T’Filah says:
This is the hour of change, and within it,
we stand quietly
on the border of light.
What lies before us?
Shall we draw back, my brother, my sister,
or cross over?