Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Behar – 5779

Parashat Behar – 5779

May 22, 2019
A D’var Torah for Parashat Behar
By Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

“This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island,

from the redwood forests to the gulf-stream waters,

this land was made for you and me.”

This classic American anthem was written in 1940 by Woody Guthrie and made popular by Pete Seeger and numerous other singers. The song is in praise of our country’s natural beauty; it is also a statement about how the land’s resources belong to all the people, not just the wealthy. One particularly-controversial verse was removed and lost for decades until it was rediscovered in the 1990s:

“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.

The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’

But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.

This land was made for you and me.”[i]

This week’s Torah portion Parashat Behar seems to support the message of the song, that the possession of land is not the exclusive right of the wealthy. But is the Torah fully in agreement with the lyrics?

In Leviticus 25:10 we read, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants… and each of you shall return to his possession…” In the year of the Jubilee (Yovel), land which had been previously sold is now to revert back to its original owner. This certainly speaks to a policy of fairness with regard to land ownership, as also reflected in the song’s call for equal access to America’s land.

And what about the nature of that ownership? At the very beginning of Genesis God says, “Let us make man in our image… and they shall rule … the whole earth” (Gen. 1:26). We are placed in charge over all the earth and the creatures God has created, though we aren’t told how to enact this relationship.

This week we do receive some instruction, as we read in Lev. 25:5: Shabbaton yiheyeh la’aretz (“there will be a Shabbat for the land”). We are told that during every seventh year, not just at the time of the 50th year of the Jubilee, we are neither to sow nor reap the land. Just as God and people observe Shabbat, we must allow the land to do so as well.

The text does not instruct us, however, with regard to our treatment of the land during the intervening six years. Today we are grappling with the terrible damage we have caused, potentially to the entire planet, due to our presumption that we can do whatever we want to the land by using it for our own greed-based motives. From coal mining to overproduction of cattle for beef, to overuse of atmosphere-damaging fertilizer and pesticide products, our ability to rule over all the earth without consideration for the earth itself, and our insistence that this land is ours to do with however we please, have had dire consequences.

Fortunately, we are beginning to experience world-wide endeavors to repair the global damage we have caused, including sustainable farming and exploration of soil use as a means of collecting carbon from the air. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “Can Dirt Save the Earth?” by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, explores ways in which a more conscious use of planting and agriculture can cause the land to literally absorb carbon from the atmosphere. The article includes a quote that serves as a reminder of the true value of the land: “Every spring, as the Northern Hemisphere greens, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dips, before rising again the following fall and winter as foliage dies. Some scientists describe this fluctuation as the earth breathing.” The earth is literally and scientifically a living, breathing entity.

There is no question that Pete Seeger was a champion of the environment and a lifelong fighter for social justice. The lyrics of “This Land is Your Land” however, when taken out of context as can happen with popular songs, may be somewhat misleading. For, according to our biblical tradition, the land is not simply made for you and me, it is created by God for you and me, it is as alive as you or me, and we are obligated not just to own it but to care for it. Perhaps someday there will be a global movement to allow the land to rest and breathe quietly on its own every seven years; during that year we might reflect, together, on how to make the best use of the period that follows, for the sake of the earth and all its inhabitants.

[i] https://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land
Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the Cantor/Educator of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. She received ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2014.