Behar-Behukotai: Let My Land Rest!

A law that could not have been written by humans.

A 3300-year-old agricultural law that may explain COVID.

Table for Five: Behar Bechukotai

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. 

-Lev. 25:4

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University

This verse is one of several in the Torah that can rightfully be cited as a demand in our tradition that we care for our environment. The Rabbis expand on the Torah’s requirements for doing this in, for example, their laws about where tanneries can be placed so as to minimize air pollution and what people upstream may and may not put into the river. The pandemic and climate change should, if anything, reinforce our awareness of the degree to which our own welfare is entangled with that of the planet on which we live and its non-human inhabitants.

The Torah’s rationale for this commandment, however, is not concern for the environment. It is rather that the seventh-year rest in planting is “a Sabbath to the Lord.” It is intended as a recognition that God, as Creator, owns the world. As such, God can and does set limits on how and when we may use it. This is one of them; the weekly Sabbath is another.

In Manhattan, 50th street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is open to the public every day of the year except Christmas, when it is closed to reassert its ownership by the owners of Rockefeller Center. Both the seventh-year and weekly Sabbaths similarly force us to recognize that we human beings are but tenants in this world, not owners of it, and we therefore owe God to manage our lives and the earth on which we live with God’s purposes and directives in mind.

Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

I love historical fiction. Give me a Ken Follet novel, let me live for a few days engrossed in medieval England, and I’m a happy camper. Now, I know nothing about agriculture. But good historical fiction gives insight into the everyday life of its time period, so I’ve learned a bit about farming from these novels. For example, excessive farming depletes minerals in the soil and reduces its efficiency. The Torah, a text seeped in agrarian society, teaches that just as humans need rest, so does the land. Every seven years, the land needs a Shabbat, a period of cessation, to rest and rejuvenate.

Even though last year wasn’t a shmitta year (the seventh year of rest for the land), our planet did have a Shabbat of sorts. As COVID slowed down life, we saw both air and water pollution levels go down in different parts of the world. It was one of the few positive effects of the pandemic.

But we didn’t give the land much time to rest. Life got busy again. The quiet of those early days gave way to increases in traffic and other polluting activities. Now we stand at the precipice of a return to normalcy. While we hope that circumstances won’t arise again to give the planet another Shabbat, it is important that we remember the benefits of this past year on the planet and strive to do our best to give our earth the rest the Torah teaches it needs to thrive.

Judy Gruen, Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”

In early July 2014, a group of religious Jews went to Kibbutz Sufa on the Gaza border to help farmers harvest the double crop of wheat that had been planted in preparation for the Shemita Sabbatical year, which this verse references. They found an entire field that had been sown late, in mid-January, due to highly unusual rainfall. They harvested the wheat.

Two weeks later, 13 Hamas terrorists infiltrated into Israel from a tunnel in Gaza–precisely where the men had harvested the wheat near Kibbutz Sufa. The terrorists chose that entry point because of the natural camouflage provided by the giant wheat field. When they emerged from the tunnel, they were shocked: their camouflage had completely disappeared.

Thus exposed, the terrorists were immediately spotted by IDF surveillance and eliminated. Throughout that summer’s war, which Israel dubbed Operation Protective Edge, Hamas shot 3,852 rockets into Israel; 30 landed. The vast majority were stopped by the Iron Dome, went off course, or landed in empty fields. Without minimizing the heartbreaking deaths of 72 Israelis, more than 800 injured, and immeasurable psychic trauma inflicted by the rocket barrage, no one could fail to see how many lives were saved by God’s celestial Operation Protective Edge. These were open miracles.

We are meant to follow God’s commandments for their own sakes, and we are not meant to rely on miracles to save us. Yet the pattern is clear in our history: dedication to mitzvot often merges with the miraculous.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director, Aish LA

If human authors were writing the Torah with the intention of passing it off as a divine document, there are certain laws that would undermine the authors’ own credibility and reveal that the true authors were not G-d, but people. Imagine we are writing the Torah and our goal is to convince the people that this is a divine document given to us by G-d. In addition to the obvious civil laws, we propose the following:

Every seventh year the nation may not work the fields. Sure the soil has an opportunity to replenish itself and with this respite, the Jews can have time to study the laws that we want them to follow. But how are people going to study our laws if they are starving to death for lack of crops? How about importing food from neighboring countries? No need! God promises that the sixth year will produce enough food for the sixth, seventh and eighth years.

Obviously, we don’t have control over how many crops the earth is going to produce. If we’re pretending to be G-d, and we promise something we know we can’t deliver, we will be exposed as frauds within 6 years. Yet, this is exactly what the Torah commands!

Why would a group of authors who want people to believe in the divinity of this book make a promise they cannot possibly fulfill and thereby destroy their own claim of divine authorship?

*Based on Yitzchak Coopersmith’s book, “The Eye of A Needle”*

Rabbi Tova Leibovic-Douglas, Speaker, spiritual counselor and educator.

I love when the wisdom of our tradition conveys a depth of knowingness that we, centuries later, are craving today. This verse reflects a truth that we have long forgotten. For anything to grow and exist in wholeness, there must be rest. This ethos of treating our land and planet as nourishers and caretakers by letting the land be, asks us to view the world differently, which begs us to view ourselves differently. This concept of rest is one that we may just be beginning to unearth through this particularly challenging year. My social media is flooded with hashtags surrounding #selfcare and #selflove, as this moment is speaking to us: individuals existing in a busy world that does not encourage rest. We are exhausted and languishing- ask any parent. Yet, we also know that one answer to our ailment is letting ourselves be.

Rest is a powerful statement of the most profound sense of spiritual care. This verse articulates this grand vision that more of us seek: a world beckoning a return to ourselves and the land. In some ways, we are demanding a return to our true birthright. Our ancestors knew that to bear the most magnificent fruit, the land needed time to restore, rejuvenate and rest. Imagine how beautiful our world would be if we channeled the wisdom, whispering that rest is not only okay, but it is part of the story.

With thanks to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, Judy Gruen, Rabbi Aryeh Markman and Rabbi Tova Leibovic-Douglas. 

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Read more at the Jewish Journal.

Image by R. Odintsov via Pexels

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