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Parashat B’har-B’huqotai

May 13, 2009

By Simon Rosenbach

This week we sort of read, as we sort of read every year, the first version of the Tokhehah, a list of threats that God has Moses deliver to the children of Israel. These threats are so dire (“you will eat the flesh of your children” – Lev. 26:29) that they are read as softly and fast as possible, so that t

After telling us that if we heed the commandments, we’ll have an undefeated season, the Torah warns us that if we violate the commandments, we won’t win a game, we won’t even take the field, we won’t even be able to find the city where the stadium is located, and we’ll probably get torn to shreds by wild beasts as we wander aimlessly.

Now, does anybody actually believe today that your crops won’t grow if you write on Shabbat? That you’ll eat your children if you drive to shul? Is there any way that we today can relate to these improbable curses?

Well, yes.

In the first part of this week’s combined parashiot, we learn about the Shmittah year: that seventh (Sabbath) year, when the land can not be cultivated but must be allowed to rejuvenate. What does the shmittah year have to do with eating your children if you don’t heed the mitzvot? In a word, everything.

In the middle of this list of curses, we discover the real cause of the misfortunes: we ignored the Shmittah year.

Then shall the land make up for its Sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for the Sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your Sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. (Lev. 34-35)

The land, God tells us, is His. We are only strangers who reside temporarily on God’s land. It is our mistreatment of God’s land that brings the curses on us. That violating the Shmittah causes the curses of the Tokhehah, thus, remains relevant today.

Moses, the first catastrophic climatologist, would be right at home today. He warned his listeners that if they mistreated the Earth, bad things would happen, and prophets today also warn us that if we mistreat the Earth, bad things will happen.

Indeed, the calamities that we may face are much worse: more and stronger storms, and both more rain and more droughts. Rising sea levels will flood our land, and rising temperatures will extinguish species. We will have both longer growing seasons and starvation, and more skin cancer.

Now, none of this is new. Nor should a plea to act to avoid these calamities be new. But as Moses stressed, each of us has a personal obligation to respect the earth and work to insure that the modern equivalent of the ancient curses does not come to pass.

Our obligation is especially urgent because our punishment for mistreating the Earth, as our ancestors recognized, is collective. When the invading armies arrived, they did not spare people who assiduously heeded the mitzvot, and the rising sea level will not spare your beachfront house because you have spent years recycling. We all need to pitch in. As Benjamin Franklin said, we can all hang together, or we will all hang separately.

We need, as Moses stressed, a cycle of Earth renewal. In Moses’ day, the Shmtitah was every seventh year: if we renewed every seventh year, the calamities would be forestalled. Today, our version of the Shmittah is an annual, rather than septennial, event. but we need to make every day Earth Day if we want to forestall not Moses’ calamities, but the calamities of our modern prophets.

We all do what little we can in our daily lives. We recycle. We lower the thermostat. We walk to the store because it saves gas (and provides exercise!). But if we can do more, we should. We need to ask: do we have programs that save energy and thus help to respect the Earth?

So: the lesson for us is not that God punishes all for the misdeeds of a few, a lesson that we might not accept today. Rather, the lesson of our ancestors is that misfortune is tied to our treatment of the natural world, and this lesson is one that we can accept. Like our ancestors, we need to respect the Earth daily, and if we do we will not be cursed, but blessed.


Simon Rosenbach is a rabbinical student at AJR.