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Parashat Behukotai

June 3, 2016

by Rabbi Jill Hammer

Parashat Behukotai is a manifestation of an ancient theology that seems distant and yet becomes more relevant to us by the day. In this parashah we learn that the covenant between the Divine and human beings is deeply intertwined with the covenant between the Divine and the earth. In fact, the two covenants cannot be separated. The earth is alive with relationship to God just as we are. This understanding of covenant affects our relationship to the earth and also can affect our way of thinking about sacred space.

In the parashah, the Israelites are promised an abundant earth: Ve-natnah ha’aretz yevulah, ve’etz hasadeh yiten piryo: The earth will give its produce and the tree of the field its fruit. Nature will be abundant and fecund. Your threshing will overtake your vintage and your vintage will overtake the sowing. In other words, each harvest will be so full it will overlap with planting. You will have to clear out the old to make room for the new. So rich your harvests will be that you will have to throw some away in order to take in new grain and wine. Isn’t this a picture of the abundance so many of us have today? Have you ever thrown away clothes or dishes or toys or food to make room for what you just bought? So have I. And most of us aren’t super-wealthy. In many ways, in our society, we live the picture that the Torah narrator is trying to create.

Yet this idyllic picture is interrupted by an ominous threat: the people are threatened with a terrible exile if they do not obey the commands of the Source of Life, an exile of alienation, deprivation, and terror. Why is this exile to be brought upon the people? Az tirtzeh ha’aretz et shabtoteha: the earth shall make up its Sabbaths that it missed while the people were not observing the sabbatical year. During the time of desolation that will come upon the land, the earth will renew itself. Why? Because the people, in their eagerness to exploit the earth’s resources, did not let the earth rest and replenish itself. Therefore the land will have all of its Sabbaths while the people endure alienation from the land.

In the previous parashah, we learn that the Israelites are commanded to let the land lie fallow every seven years. There shall be an absolute sabbath for the land. Indentured servants are also to be freed during this time, and in the fiftieth year, all land must return to its original tribal owners and all slaves must be freed. These Sabbaths were meant to prevent a permanent wealthy class from owning all the land, they were meant to prevent the development of a permanent servant class, and they were also meant to allow the land to rest and renew itself. Scholars debate over whether this practice ever actually occurred or whether it was invented by a priestly class that could not actually enforce it. But the question I want to raise with you today is a little different.

When the law of the shmita year is first mentioned, the text says: “the land shall observe a Sabbath of YHWH — veshavtah ha’aretz Shabbat la’adonai. In Parashat Behukotai, we hear the same thing: the land shall observe the Sabbaths that she missed. Not: you shall observe the shmita years that you missed. Rather: the land shall observe them. These shmita years and jubilee years, though they require the participation of human beings, are not our observance. In the ritual and calendrical lore of our people, they are the observances of the earth itself. We let the land rest not only because we need it to rest, but because the earth requires it.

This language suggests a subtle move from a human-centric model to a geo-centric model. The earth is a partner with God in the same way that human beings are: she has a connection to the sacred that connects to ours but is not the same as ours. This view is somewhat at odds with the view of Genesis, in which the earth is for the support of human beings. This view suggests that humans and the earth support one another.

Midrash Rabbah says: “Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai said: Three things are considered of equal weight, and these are they: the earth (eretz), mankind (adam), and rain (matar).”  Rabbi Levi added:  “and the three of them are each spelled with three letters, to indicate that if there is no earth, there is no rain, and if there is no rain, there can be no earth, and if one does not have both of them, there can be no mankind.” (Genesis Rabbah 13:3)

Many later interpreters assumed that this passage meant that earth and rain were created solely for the sake of human beings. However, I don’t think that is what the passage says. The midrash says all three are of equal weight. To me, this means that it is indeed true that humans cannot live without rain and earth, but it is also true that earth needs rain regardless of us. The midrash begins to provide a consciousness in which we greet the earth as a Thou rather than an It, to use the language of Buber.

It is also a change in consciousness that allows us a new vision of sacred space.  If the earth is a being, if the earth is alive, our relation to sacred space is one of being to being. Spaces we declare sacred are not merely allocated for our use when we do ceremony: they are sacred because of a particular vividness with which they are alive.

You can see this sense that the earth is alive in many sacred spaces around the world. In Mayan temples to the earth, a doorway is set into the side of the mountain, as if the earth itself is the sacred journey. The Hopi kiva also is dug out of the earth. The temples of Ireland were built to let in the sunlight to illuminate a dark space once a year, as if seeding a womb. In Jewish tradition, at the heart of the Holy of Holies was the even ha-shetiyah, the foundation stone. This stone was not only used for the High Priest to set down the incense pan, it was the navel of the world from which God spread out the world to the four directions.

I discovered this sense of living presence one summer in a grain field. I was at a small retreat at a little retreat center. I needed to be alone, so I went walking in the farmland that surrounded the retreat center. I was walking next to the rows of a grain field, which were green and vibrant.

Suddenly inspired to connect to the ground, I lay down in a furrow on the earth and pressed my face and hands into the soil. I felt the warmth of the sun contained within the land. A wind passed through the field and I heard the sound of it and felt the movement of it, the ruah, the breath of life. I knew that place, that quite ordinary yet extraordinary place, as alive and holy. I still have the small piece of grain I picked up that day, it reminds me of the generosity of the earth in holding me all my life.

Holy places can remind us of holy living. When we make our holy places close to the earth, that reminds us to stay in partnership with the earth, so that we can honor her cycles and respect her needs. Perhaps it helps us not become alienated or wasteful. Such holy places also remind us that according to the tradition of the kabbalists, the earth itself is a dwelling place for the Divine. The Zohar Hadash uses the last letter of God’s name, the Hei, to refer to the Divine Presence dwelling in creation. This text says:

All is included in the image of Hei, that is, Shekhinah. In Shekhinah secret were created and ordered all the earthly beings. For this reason it is written: “Elohim said: Let us make  (na`aseh) Adam in our image as our likeness…” “Na`aseh/N`SH” (ending in the letter hei) — Adam is made in the image of the Hei, literally, and all these that are existing below and are united in Her, in Her image, in actuality (mamash).”

In this kabbalistic text, not only we are made in the image of the Divine Presence, but all beings are made in that image — and the image is literal, because the substance of the world is an embodiment of the Divine — mamash, really. It’s not an idea or a metaphor, but a real holiness in the soil and the sea and the sun and the birds outside. When we give the earth a Sabbath, and when we spend a Sabbath on the earth, we honor that holiness.

May we, in sacred space, and in all the space that is our earth, become aware of the living covenant between the world and God. May we honor that covenant in how we walk upon the soil and how we treat our sacred home. May we listen to the message of the sabbatical year and foundation stone, and take care to respect the rhythms of our world.

Shabbat shalom.


Rabbi Jill Hammer is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR.  She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.