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Parashat Behukottai

June 11, 2008

By Rabbi Katy Allen

Here in New England, the trees are almost fully leafed out. The brilliant yellow marsh marigolds have come and gone. The tiny, delicate bluets blanket the meadows as if with snow. Trillium dot the woods, and the lady slippers are bursting forth.

One could think that all is right in the world.

Then you notice invasive garlic mustard, purple loosestrife, and Japanese bittersweet. Alien species such as these are pushing out native plants from woods, wetlands, and open spaces. Deer are eating every wildflower in sight. The diversity of our wild areas is declining.

All isn’t right with the world after all.

This week we read, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their seasons, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.” (Lev. 26:3) Our Torah clearly states that if we observe the Divine commandments, all will be well with the Earth.

“And if, for all that, you do not obey Me . . . I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper . . . Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.” (Lev. 26:18-20) And if we do not observe the Divine commandments, all will not be well with the Earth.

Is the sky going to be “like iron” if someone eats a cheeseburger or doesn’t remove their hametz before Passover? Will the Earth become “like copper” if someone speaks lashon hara or covets someone’s new water-saving toilet?

I cannot be sure about the answers to these questions. But with answer to other questions, I am clearer. Is the sky going to be “like iron” if we continue to pour pollutants into the air? Will the earth become “like copper” if we continue to dump chemicals onto the land? I have no doubt that the answer is “YES!”

In addition to the 613 Divine mitzvot elucidated in the Torah, there is also the multitude of “laws” that have to do with preserving the natural world. These are not detailed in our ancient texts. Although they may be considered to be included in the mitzvah of bal tashchit, do not waste (Deut. 21:19), and other passages, our Torah does not tell us to make sure our medications don’t enter our water supply. It does not tell us not to give hormones to our cows because they will get into the milk and then into our bodies. It doesn’t tell us to carpool or ride our bikes to keep carbon dioxide out of the air. But, in this week’s parashah, and in many of our holy texts, we read that there are consequences to our actions. If we do what the Holy One of Blessing requests of us, we will see positive results. If we do not, we will see negative results. We pay for our actions.

And so it is with our Earth. Rampant garlic mustard, Japanese bittersweet, and purple loosestrife are the results of people’s actions. So are so many other things that are awry with our Earth – the results of the actions of millions of people over decades and centuries.

So what do we do?

Perhaps we feel overwhelmed and inadequate. Perhaps we do nothing. Perhaps we unknowingly act out the “bystander effect”: in an emergency, the more people there are around, the less likely people are to help.

In this case, the emergency is not a person in distress, it is a planet in distress. If I were alone, would I be more likely to help?

The corollary to the bystander effect is that when one person acts, everyone else jumps in to help.

After the lengthy detailing of curses, we read in the last verse of Vayikra, “These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.”

Moses acted. He was the one person to whom God spoke. The Israelites didn’t always jump in and help, but they did accept the Torah. They did build a relationship with God. They did become a people and a nation. None of that would have happened if Moses had been a bystander.

We need to stop being bystanders. We need jump in and start the ball rolling, in our homes, our communities, and our nation. We need to ask ourselves, “What one additional change to my habits can I make to help preserve our endangered planet? What can I commit to this month, and next month, and the month after that may help ensure that the marsh marigolds will bloom in future decades, and that our grandchildren will be there to see them? What can I do to make sure that our future is filled with blessings, and not with curses?”

It is up to me, and it is up to you. Each of us needs to be Moses. It is the only way we save our endangered planet.