Torah Talk on Behar 5779
This week we read the portion of Behar, from the book of Leviticus, which establishes the rules for the sabbatical and jubilee years, the most important form of environmental legislation in the ancient world.
Concern for the environment in Judaism has always been an important part of our tradition. The very first text on caring for the natural world goes back to Genesis, where we are commanded to be stewards of God’s creation.
But the most important Jewish legislation in the Torah is found in Leviticus, in a section we read this week in Parshat Behar: you shall have a Sabbatical every seventh year, and the land shall rest. We are instructed to do no active planting or cultivation, to allow the fields to lie fallow, to give the earth a chance to rest. This is considered today to be good, practical agricultural policy. It allows time for nature to restore the nutrients that grains leach from the soil, it allows the fallen fruit in the orchards to nourish the loam, and it is a fundamental part of crop rotation in all areas practicing modern farming techniques.
The remarkable fact about this shmitah, this sabbatical mitzvah, is that it originated in the Torah, a document that is at least 2500 years old and which contains text that is quite probably 700 or 800 years older than that. That is, the scientific concern for the health of the environment goes back three thousand years in Judaism, and the requirement to care for the natural world as responsible human beings is at least as longstanding.
There are many more commandments in the Torah relating to stewardship of the natural world—even in warfare we are prohibited from destroying our enemies’ fruit trees, or seriously damaging the productive capacity of the land to feed its inhabitants. This is in sharp contrast to the ancient Roman Empire’s policy of sowing salt in the fields of conquered enemies to destroy their fields, and to create forced starvation. Ironically, it is also in contrast to the occasional policy of the Israeli military to bulldoze the olive trees of Arab terrorist’s families. For the injunction is clear: we are to respect the natural environment, since it is a reflection of God’s holiness projected into our world.
It is also a not-so-subtle hint that we need to use renewable sources of energy, such as solar power, geothermal, and wind power that do not damage the world that God has given us.
There are other contemporary consequences of this most ancient commandment. The Sabbatical year off of teaching, so beloved on university campuses, comes directly from this week’s portion of Behar, a time to recharge your batteries and renew your scholarship, just as the land replenishes itself through a year of Shmitah, divine rest.
A great lesson in a world in which we often seem more intent on domination than cultivation. And a reminder that even renewable resources need tending. The same can be said for us: we, too, need to take a day each week, a kind weekly sabbatical, to each restore our own equilibrium.
May we learn Behar’s lesson, and so allow our land to renew itself. And then we might even learn to allow ourselves some rest, and so come to replenish our own spiritual resources—say this week, on Shabbat.