Our Role as Stewards of the Land

With Attribution to Rita Hall

The connection between today’s portion and last weeks is profound. Last week in Parshat Behar we focused on the laws of the sabbatical year and Jubilee law, reminding us that, ultimately, everything belongs to God. We do not really own anything. In Western society it is easy to get caught in the trap of materialism. We unconsciously measure our quality of life based on the value of our possessions.

Though Judaism is distinguished by a this-worldly ethic, the acquisition of material possessions is not a high priority. We are guided by an adage of Ben Zoma from the second century,   Who may be deemed rich? Those content with their lot  (Pirkei Avot 4:1). We need far less than we want.    The overriding goal is not to earn as much as we possibly can, but to have a clear conscience when we’re finished.

A commercial transaction should not be entirely market-driven. Ethical considerations serve to protect the social fabric. Jewish law reins in the profit motive because making money is not the supreme value. The manner in which we do our business is no less important than the final payoff.    Torah aims to imbue us with a level of self-restraint that is not normally ours.

This is the spirit which animates the high-minded legislation of Parashat Be–har.  It deals with essential laws of economic justice in an agrarian society, to diminish the accumulation of inequities that eventually unravel the fabric of society – one may not cheat another in selling or buying, nor earn a profit at the expense of one in need.

There is a constant emphasis on obeying God’s bidding in order to gain our goals. It’s difficult to imagine that God merely wants us to do what we’re told, shut down our imaginations, and cease questioning. In the famous prayer “I am a Jew Because” one of the key Judaic principles is “I am a Jew because it requires no abdication of my mind.” We are exhorted to question, to examine, to try to understand.

Our tradition is clear: the way in which we walk in the world makes a difference. Reaching out to others, offering support and comfort, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, these acts, and others, help us to build community. It is a constant balancing act for the integration of the intellectual and the spiritual journeys of our lives.

In contrast, Parashat B’hukotai is one of the Torah portions that makes me cringe.   It promises abundant blessings to those who obey God’s commandments and ghastly disasters for those who do not. It makes more sense when read as a code for communities rather than for individuals. It is the working together that brings about the promised end result.

Metaphorically speaking, human life may have originated in a garden, but its natural habitat is the wilderness, a forsaken place to be settled, ordered and exploited by human ingenuity, as we see next week when we read from the wilderness of Sinai. To turn chaos into order, humankind had to resort to collective action, – to assert the welfare of the whole over the pleasures of the individual.

         It is part of our tradition that we do not only pray for something to happen, but we also put our shoulders to the work and help it to happen.  We must live as earnestly as we pray.

As an example, we pray for beneficial rain, and then must follow through with environmental action.

         At the beginning of B’hukotai, we read that rainfall is a function of our doing God’s will. With a modern scientific understanding that human actions affect the quality and quantity of the rain, the warning of B’hukotai warrants our attention. We must reawaken the awareness that our actions impact the entire planet. A consensus of scientists states that human-caused climate change  may decrease precipitation at mid and low altitudes, where the bulk of farmland lies.

         We not only affect how rain comes down, but also how that rain affects the land when it does fall. With increasing urbanization in the world, land that once soaked up rainwater is being covered in impervious pavement, which prevents the rainwater from replenishing underground aquifers. Unabsorbed rainwater becomes runoff, flowing through drainage systems, causing floods when drains and sewers are overburdened, picking up pollutants along the way, which are then dumped into lakes, streams, and oceans.

         We cannot ignore the connection between our actions and the physical conditions which surround us. Today we have an unbelievably complex understanding of how the earth’s systems work, and how we impact them. But scientific explanations should not obscure the true lesson of B’hukotai – we really are obligated to live in balance with, and be stewards of, God’s Creation.

Praying for beneficial rain and then ignoring the problems of global warming and unchecked urban development is like praying for good health and then continuing to eat poorly and smoke a pack of cigarettes a day.

         Our actions should be consistent with the emphasis of our prayers. Our goal is to honor ancient customs and biblical precepts but finding ways to contextualize the practice and make it more meaningful for us as contemporary Jews. In every generation we receive the same Torah our ancestors did, but we have to work at making it our own. Praying is a beginning, but we must follow through by acting on the awareness that we contribute to bringing either rains of blessing or destructive storms. By doing so, we fulfill our stewardship and we can give our children the gift of a world that is blessed with prosperity and peace.

Some Things Are Beyond Words

There are things in life which are incomprehensible, completely beyond words. The shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas is one of those. What would motivate an 18 year old to allegedly shoot his grandmother and then proceed to the school where he murdered 19 students and 2 adults? What is it like for the parents who dropped their children at school, thinking they were safe, only to never see them again? There are so many questions and so few answers.

Our hearts go out to each of the parents whose children has so much potential, at the blossoming of their young lives. We also are thinking of the teachers who give so much of themselves each and every day to educate the next generation and one of whom was unable to return to loved ones. While the shooter has been killed, there is no possibility for justice to be served for such a heinous crime.

I challenge each and every one of us to teach love, not fear; courage not anxiety; perseverance rather than numbness or throwing up our hands. The problems of our time are great, yet with resolve, confidence and the strength of our convictions we can exemplify that love trumps hatred and unity can overcome animosity and fear.

Let us continue to pray for those in critical condition-that they are able to make a full, speedy recovery.

I pray for better times ahead when we can celebrate as a unified community rather than mourn senseless hatred.

Connection Between Shmitah and Mount Sinai

With Appreciation for Rabbi Jonathan Slater

          One of the favorite questions of the rabbis is מאי שמיתה אצל הר סיני, what do the laws of the sabbatical year have to do with Mount Sinai (on which they are given)? As Rabbi Jonathan Slater taught, a contemporary question we might ask is “How much is the price of tea in China?” In other words, what does this have to do with me?

          The Gerer Rebbe, in his book Sefat Emet, teaches that the relationship between the sabbatical year and Mount Sinai has to do with condition of humanity. He writes, “Humans are both heavenly and earthly: the soul from the heavens, the body from the earth. When our soul is more powerful than the body, we can be like angels.” He references a teaching by Rabbi Yitzhak that “the usual way of things is that a person will fulfill a commandment for one day, for one week, even for one month. But is it likely that they will do so for the rest of the days of the year? But here, one sees their field untilled, their vineyard untilled, and yet they pay their taxes and keep silent! Have you a mightier one than this?”[1]

          The connection between the sabbatical year and Mount Sinai is that each of us has the potential to rise to heavenly beings through earthly acts. By letting our land lie fallow, trusting that we will have enough for ourselves, we are demonstrating our faith in the Holy One. Sefat Emet further quotes the Zohar which teaches “Whatever is in your power to do, do with all your might. With all your might-this signifies the soul.”[2] Our task as holy beings is to utilize our full potential to serve God. In the rat race of life we can lose sight of this, striving instead to get ahead of our fellow without recognizing that everything in life is a gift gratis from God.

          The connection between the physical and the spiritual is profound yet it is often overlooked or separated. What is taught in Sefat Emet is that we concretize the spiritual through our actions in the physical world. By resting once day a week, or letting our produce grow as it naturally does one year out of 7, we bring godliness into the world. Thus something which is as earthly as tilling the soil has the deepest spiritual significance.

          The next time we read a series of laws like that of the sabbatical year and think “That only applies in Israel” or “That’s the farmer’s domain” may we recognize that everything is interconnected and how we use (rather than ab303use) our land has Divine impact.

[1] Sefat Emet Behar 5663 (1903)

[2] Zohar I 196b commenting on Ecclesiastes 9:10

Lag B’Omer

With Appreciation to Rabbi David Golinkin

         This coming week we have the celebration of Lag B’Omer, a strange custom. Thanks to the research of Rabbi David Golinkin, I have some insight into some of the customs surrounding this day. In the Talmud there is a story of Rabbi Akiva’s 12,000 pairs of students dying from a plague because they didn’t treat each other respectfully.[1] Rabbi Nahman said dyptheria, but we are uncertain if this was the plague. In the Geonic commentary it teaches that the plague ceased on Lag B’Omer. Yet this does not explain why we mourn: why we cease from haircuts and shaving, going to concerts and conducting weddings. The customs of mourning surrounding it go back to the late Gaonic period, where Rav Natronai Gaon or Rav Hai Gaon was asked about the custom. Dr. Aaron Amit said that the story has no historical basis, yet the custom persists.

         Further evidence that there was no one custom is the fact that some mourn between Passover and Lag B’Omer, others between the 1st of Iyar and Shavuot and others between Passover and Shavuot excluding Lag B’Omer. But why not Lag B’Omer besides the story of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples? In a tradition attributed to the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai said to his disciples “on my Yahrzeit you should rejoice,” and he died on the 33rd day of the Omer. Hence why people gather at his grave on Mount Meron every Lag B’Omer. There were flames lit and a tradition of shooting bows and arrows to ward off evil spirits.

         Still we need to determine what import Lag B’Omer has to us so that it is meaningful. Dr. Salo Baron reinterpreted it as being for most massacres of Jews during the crusades, as they occurred in Iyar and Sivan, based off Sefer Minhag Tov. Rabbi Golinkin says we should mourn for the 6 million Jews who perished in the Shoah. To me that makes sense. We know there were fast days and days of mourning that fell into desuetude when everything became lumped into Tisha B’Av. Why not as Rabbi Golinkin argues, להחזיר עטרה ליושנה[2]  revitalize ancient customs which fell into disuse?

         Whatever the reason for your desire to celebrate Lag B’Omer, I hope you will join us Sunday morning for the last day of Religious School and our community Lag B’Omer celebration.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 62b

[2] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 69b

The First Fruits

          There’s a relatively modern custom that was once solely the practice of Hasidic Jews and has since become in vogue: the upshurin, or first haircut of a boy at his third birthday or on Lag B’Omer the year \of his 3rd birthday. I will speak about Lag B’Omer next Friday; today I want to address the source for why one waits 3 years, which comes from Parshat Kedoshim. The portion says, “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden (literally ‘uncircumcised’) for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before God. and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I am Adonai your God.”[1] Is this like the shmitah practice, that by not eating the fruit the trees become more productive and their yield increases? That seems implausible. Rather it has to do with an appreciation of the First Fruits as gifts from the Holy One.

          Rashi, the 11th century biblical commentator par excellence, says that this has to do with the word ערל, or uncircumcised. He comments, “You shall regard it as enclosed: the meaning being that it shall be, as it were, closed up and barred so that no benefit may be derived from it.”[2] It must have taken great effort to close off, or restrain oneself, from luscious produce. Just look at Adam and Eve consuming the fruit-and they were not even wandering in the desert for 40 years! Yet Rashi is saying that one must treat it as one treats the foreskin: something from which one derives no benefit, and therefore must abstain from.

          The concept of “uncircumcised” in the Torah means “closed off from.” Uncircumcised ears or an uncircumcised heart means one is denying the cry of those in pain. Uncircumcised lips are closed off from the need to counsel and respond with words of wisdom. The fruit treated as if it is uncircumcised is one from which no benefit can be derived. Furthermore, when benefit can be derived, in the fourth year, one does not consume it but presents it to God out of gratitude for arriving to the Holy Land. It is not until Year 5 that the fruit can be consumed.

          This is an ultimate test of faith, of patience and gratitude. Rather than having a scarcity mentality, that the fruit must be consumed as soon as possible, one must develop restraint, appreciating the fruit as a gift of God’s benevolence. This is also why we say a blessing before we consume anything: to show gratitude for what we have and to remember the source of where it comes from. Similarly, with the upshurin: we remember those first curls of hair, the beauty that they have and that credit must be given to the Holy One who is the one who enables it to grow. As we approach Shavuot, may our gratitude only grow and may we have patience and restraint when needed, not jumping in on the consumption train but instead appreciating all that we have.

[1] Leviticus 19:23-25

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 19:23 ד”ה וערלתם ערלתו את פריו