D'var Torah on Behar
Published in Speeches / talks
May 2014

Let's give the land a rest

Fred Bernstein

D’var Torah


May 10, 2014

One of my sons like to point out that even those of us who respect tradition shouldn’t have to do things the way they were done in ancient times. After all, my son says: Someday, these will be ancient times. And people will look to us for how to do things.

I am fascinated by the idea that someday these will be ancient times. First, it assumes that the world, and human civilization, will last at least a few thousand more years. And it suggests that, someday, people will be talking about what we did in the 21st century. And possibly following traditions we created.

That’s a big responsibility for us.

What will the story be that will be told about us, thousands of years from now? Perhaps it will be a story about a flood: about rising waters, and about warnings, and about those who listened to the warnings. And about those who didn’t.

This week’s Torah portion is Behar. Behar means on the mountain, in this case on Mount Sinai, where Moses had gone to speak to God. And God has a very important message, a kind of public service announcement from on high.

Much of Behar concerns the rights of landowners and laborers. But before it gets into the protection of people, Behar addresses the protection of the land. The message to the Jews, not long after they received the Ten Commandments, was this: “You may sow your field for six years, but not in the seventh year, which is a Sabbath for the land.”

Imagine telling the Jews, early in what turned out to be 40 years of wandering in the desert, that if they do finally reach the Promised Land, and manage to survive, they’ll have to let the land lie fallow every seventh year. Yes, God’s initial message when laying down rules for agriculture and labor isn’t about giving the people a rest, or the animals a rest, but about giving the land a rest. Just like us, the land should have a Sabbath.

Why did God impose this radical idea, and at Mount Sinai, no less? As my Orthodox college roommate Seth Zwillenberg used to say, when people asked why he had to follow certain commandments, such as the prohibition on eating pork, “God didn’t give reasons.” Which is just as well, because if God gave reasons, we would be doing even more arguing with God than we already do.

Rashi, the great 11th Century Torah scholar, believed that the purpose of letting the land rest every seventh year was to honor God. That is, to honor God directly, by following his commandment. I have a slightly different view. I think we let the land rest to honor God indirectly, by honoring his creation: the earth.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the authors of the Torah, whether directed by God or not, understood that land can get used up. Proper cultivation requires that soil be allowed to regenerate, to regain the nutrients that agriculture depletes. Otherwise, the land will become useless. In other words, if you don’t give the earth a rest, it will eventually be unable to feed you.

And it helps to have a law about this. Because, really, who would follow a suggestion -- rather than a commandment -- to let the land lie fallow every seventh year? Who wouldn’t procrastinate until the eighth, or the ninth, or the twentieth, or the fiftieth year? One more year won’t hurt, and one more year (after that one) won’t hurt. And on and on, until it’s too late, and the land won’t feed you.

How do I know it’s human nature to procrastinate? I see it all around me. I see it in my own apartment, where we are still burning incandescent bulbs, even though fluorescents use less electricity, and where we run the air conditioners all summer. Except when we’re not home, which often means we’ve flown thousands of miles. This summer we’ll be flying across the country to see family and friends. We’ll do that despite knowing that flying is one of the very worst things we can do to the environment. Yes, I need to change my ways, but maybe not this year.

And I see procrastination on a larger scale. It’s been 35 years since Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House, and was viewed, by some, as a kook. (I see him as a prophet.) And it’s been 28 years since Ronald Reagan had the solar panels taken down. In those years, fossil fuel consumption has risen exponentially. And we, as a people have done little. The Senate, for example, has failed to ratify the Kyoto protocol, a treaty that set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Other countries began signing on to the treaty seventeen years ago, in 1997.

Meanwhile, there have been all kinds of warnings, warnings that would make an old testament prophet shudder. I am thinking, for example, of the warnings that came in March, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report saying the ice caps are melting, fresh water supplies are shrinking, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish are migrating or in some cases going extinct. If that’s too abstract, let me add this quote from the New York Times: “In particular, the report emphasized that the world’s food supply is at considerable risk.”

Yes, the world’s food supply is at considerable risk. And what are we doing about it? Very little. That’s why the authors of the Torah made it a rule -- not a suggestion -- that we give the land beneath our feet a Sabbath.

I look at the children gathered here today, including the fifth graders from the Hebrew school, and my own children, who are sixth graders, and I look at you with hope. My generation, the generation in power, has failed to follow the commandment, delivered to us behar, on Mount Sinai, to give the land a rest.

I hope your generation will do better.

Otherwise, these may never be ancient times.

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