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.

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