A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Torah Portion: Behar - Land for Peace

With that attention-grabbing title, I ask for your indulgence in writing about last week's Torah portion. This week's is B'chukotai, but my thoughts are all about Behar (which means "on the mountain.")

The parshah mandates the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee. God commands that every seven years the earth lie fallow - enjoy a Shabbat, or in English a Sabbatical - and be free from cultivation. Every fiftieth year is the Yoveil, or Jubilee, in which land is returned to its original owners. The underlying basis for these restrictions on how owners can treat the land is that God is the true owner, and human beings are merely "resident aliens" who must not fall under the illusion that the land belongs to us. This sounds like a paen to Gaia whose recitation should precede our prancing around in the forest with drums - but it's from the Torah.

There is a debate between Rashi and Ramban as to the purpose of the Sabbatical year. Rashi argues that the instruction that the Sabbatical year is a Sabbath to Adonai indicates that its observance is in order to glorify God, just as Shabbat (i.e. the Seventh day) is observed, as Exodus 20:9 tells us with the same language - a Shabbat to Adonai - to draw attention to the divine majesty governing the universe.

Translation: we observe the weekly Shabbat and the seven-yearly Shabbat to raise our consciousness and the consciousness of humanity regarding our place in the universe. It repositions us, reminding us of our puniness, and God's greatness, and the fact that we are temporary residents on this physical space created by a force that exceeds our capacity to comprehend.

Ramban is ready to throw down on this one. He points out that Rashi is out on a limb here, as the Sages (the early rabbinic sources) argued that it is instead for a very concrete human benefit: on that day we are to rest and hold back from the performance of labor. In this we imitate God, who, after the creation of the world, Shabbat vayinafash, ceased and rested, on the seventh day. The same is true, the Sages said with the Sabbatical year: it forces us to rest.

On the other hand, as Topel would say.... Rashi's and Ramban's readings work best together. The observance of Shabbat and of the Shabbat of Years both raises our consciousness and restores our bodies. In each case, the mitzvah draws our attention to our createdness and contingency and the divine energy coursing through the universe in whose presence we we continually stand. And in each case, too, the individual and the society are commanded to cease and delight in the fact of their being. Not to benefit from their striving, achieving, laboring, and acquiring - but to simply be.

We might look at all of the mitzvoth in this way. They draw our attention to our orientation in the universe and our presence before that which is beyond our comprehension. And they also serve to elevate us, enrich us, and enoble us. Our spiritual and bodily restoration leads us to a kind of wholeness - shleimut - and peace - shalom.

The Sabbatical Year also carries a radical social and ecological message. It is not simply for individual satisfaction. In the Jubilee year workers are freed from their contracts and are allowed to return to their achuzah, their landholdings. The law underscored, then, a recognition of radical and profound human equality. As Ibn Ezra comments, in the Sabbatical year the ordinary socio-economic relations are dissolved and revealed to be only temporary human constructions: You may continue to gather from the land, but
you cannot do so as would an owner. All shall be equal in [the Sabbatical year], you, your hired laborer, and your resident alien.
What did he mean? In the seventh year, when natural processes continue to bring some portion of harvest, the "owner" of the land has no more right to the growth than do other people. Suddenly what was owned becomes wholly (holy?) public and it can be gathered by all, with the owner prevented from making any special claim on the land. The mitzvah, then, was aimed at individual peace and social peace.

Finally, an ecological, or rather human-ecological peace was created by this year. The land is entitled to its own Shabbat, reminding us that we are among creation, a part of a creation that must function and prosper independently of our own needs. The land has, as it were, its own relationship to the Divine. Adam and Eve are told in Genesis to "till" and "tend" the land, to steward over it. Here we are forced to acknowledge the limitations of our capacity to exploit the natural world. Inscribed in time is a limit to our own exploits, a command that we perfect our relationship to the world we inhabit and take stock of our place in it and its majesty. Here, too, peace.

1 comment:

  1. Comment about Rabbi Josh’s article “Torah portion: Behar-Land for Peace
    The Sabbath day allow us rest and regroup for another week. Unlike God, who merely ceased from work on the 7th Day, since He does not tire or need rest, we do tire and need rest in order to be restored to do our work in a happy efficient way.
    Judgment is like that Sabbath. We realize upon judgment on the Sabbath that all our labor can be consumed by moth and rust. This way the Lord teaches us to appreciate the glory of the material things He will provide in Heaven after we realize the amount of labor we have had to do to provide a minute amount of material glory here on Earth.
    The Lord cursed the Earth as Adam and Eve left the Garden so that they would appreciate more the bounty from the land because of the labor they had to put into sowing and reaping.
    The Lord wants us to hope for a restoration of the blessing of the land, by having us let it lay fallow on the Sabbath year so He can restore it and make it Holy for all the people.