Thursday, May 15, 2014

Paying back the earth for all of its kindness

What is our obligation to the earth? And what are the consequences of reneging on that obligation?

This week’s portion, Behukotai, closes the Book of Leviticus. This portion contains a section known as the Tochecha, the Reprimand. Similar to a section near the end of Deuteronomy, also called the Tochecha, this section starkly contrasts the rewards and punishments that follow when the people either follow the laws or disobey them. In many congregations, the words of the Tochecha are so frightening that they are chanted in an undertone, as if to speak them aloud might cause them to come into being.

Unlike the horrific passage towards the end of Deuteronomy, Leviticus chapter 26 is shorter and less graphic. There are no “blessings” or “curses.”  Could the section in our portion have a different message? While the version in Deuteronomy begins with the phrase “When you enter the land,” this portion opens with “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments….” (Lev.26:3)  The two occasions for the reprimand may have different purposes.

What does Behukotai mean by “follow My laws”?  The closing verse of last week’s portion, Behar, was, “You shall observe My Sabbaths and give reverence to My sanctuary, Mine, the Lord’s.” (Lev. 26:2)  Medieval commentator Ibn Ezra interprets “My Sabbaths” not as the weekly day of rest, but the sabbatical year, which was the subject of Behar. Throughout that portion, we were reminded that the earth does not belong to us; it is a gift. In the sabbatical year, we must allow the earth a Sabbath of its own, a time to lie fallow. Every seventh year we are to cease from working the fields and vineyards. “For the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” (Lev. 25:22) We do not own the land and have no right to abuse it for our own benefit.

In this context, we might conclude that “My sanctuary” is not a building or a single place, but the whole planet. Therefore, to “observe My Sabbaths” would mean to give the land a rest, and to “give reverence to My sanctuary” would mean to respect and care for God’s dwelling-place, the earth and sky.

With this interpretation, the Tochecha of our portion makes sense. As the 12th century French commentator, Bechor Shor, teaches “If you do what you are supposed to do, then the clouds and the land and the trees that were created for your benefit will do what they are supposed to do.”  There is an integral relationship between our actions and the natural world.

When one follows these rules, the immediate result will be rain in its proper season, so that the fields will yield abundant produce and the trees will bear rich fruit. “You shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.” (Lev. 26:4)  One midrash explains that “rain in its proper season” is a rain that gives us security and comfort, falling when we need it. This rain feeds the earth and helps humanity.

However, if we refuse to obey, the sky will turn to iron and earth to copper. We will face drought and destruction.  Social unrest will ensue: “Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin.” (Lev. 26:33)  The earth will turn against us because we have turned against it: “Then shall the land make up for its Sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate…throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your Sabbath years…” (Lev. 26:34-35) If we rebel and do not pay reverence to the land, the land will respond by rebelling against us. These are the consequences of our own abuse of the earth.

This ancient warning of reward and punishment is eerily similar to the description of the impact of climate change found in the 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA) released last week. It’s here. It’s happening. And it’s already having a big impact on our lives and the lives of our children. Drought. Intense storms. Coastal flooding due to sea level rise and storm surge.  Longer growing seasons that will also foster more insect pests and disease. These will, in turn, lead to food shortages, diminishing supplies of clean water, illness, and death. Much like the Tochecha describes.

Furthermore, the NCA demonstrates that we humans are responsible for the dramatic warming over the past fifty years, primarily through burning coal, oil and gas. As our portion teaches, our actions toward the created world have consequences.

The natural world can be saved, if we change our ways. The Rabbis observed that the earth itself provides a model for human beings to change. They noted a discrepancy in the first chapter of Genesis between how the earth was supposed to be and how it turned out. On the third day of Creation, God calls forth “fruit trees of every kind.” (Gen. 1:11). What the earth brought forth, however, were “trees that bear fruit.” (Gen.1:12) With this tiny linguistic change, the Rabbis imagined that every part of the tree was supposed to be edible. The earth sinned by producing trees whose fruit alone could be eaten. For this, the Torah tells us that the earth was cursed. (Gen. 3:17) What caused the earth itself to rebel against the divine command?

A Hasidic teacher, the Ohev Yisrael, explains that the earth was acting out of compassion for human beings, recognizing that the first human, Adam, was imperfect and was bound to disobey God. The earth feared that humanity would be so devastated by this act of rebellion that we would never recover. By choosing to disobey God first, the earth sacrificed itself for our sake. At the same time, it demonstrated the power of teshuvah, the fundamental ability to repent and change.

In this sense, the earth gives us the ability to change our ways. We must exercise this opportunity. Because the earth took care of us, we are forever obligated to care for and protect the earth. 

This column was originally published in The Jewish Advocate, May 16, 2014