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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Behar-Bechukotai

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing the dual reading of Parashat Behar and Parashat Bechukotai. Behar is Hebrew for “at the mountain [of]” – it describes how G-d spoke to Moshe on Sinai and revealed the laws which pertain to the Sabbatical Year (known in Hebrew as Shemittah). In (25:2) we read: “When you come into the Land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for Hashem.” The comparison between the Sabbatical Year and the Sabbath is both serious and symbolic. On one level, we can see a simple pattern – human beings are commanded to work for six days and then rest on the seventh. The commandment of the Sabbatical Year functions in the same way – human beings are allowed to work and harvest from the land for six years but must allow it to lay fallow on the seventh. On another level, observance of both the weekly Sabbath, and the Sabbath of the Land, are about honoring the sanctity of G-d’s creation. They are about maintaining proper boundaries between the sacred and the mundane and infusing our actions with higher meaning and purpose. With every cycle of seven – from the weekly Sabbath, to the Shemittah, and ultimately to the Jubilee Year[1](known in Hebrew as Yovel, which occurs every fifty years) – we recognize that our lives exist within cycles that are fundamental to creation. In Judaism, seven is a number that signifies completion; it’s representative of a larger concept related to the transformation of form, and the inherent tendency of the material world to move towards greater complexity. All of the laws that are outlined in the Torah are about perpetuating that tendency towards greater complexity. The mitzvot are certainly conjoined to concepts such as purity or pollution, but – ultimately – an underlying, structural motif of the Torah is about protection of life. It’s about understanding that if life, and all living beings, are to maximize their potential, they must arrange themselves into a kind of form that can attune to the order of creation. It is this very form that is established through a series of actions (i.e. mitzvot) that support the prerequisite conditions for life, and consequentially: complexity. If complexity is to have any genuine resistance, it must also be tiered, which is what necessitates the repetition of cycles. These are the beginnings (and ends) of the day, the work week, the Sabbatical Year, and the era as represented by the Jubilee.

The same dynamics are present within the discipline of ecology – ecological systems encounter various factors that either disturb, or contribute, to the complexity of the ecosystem. These can come in the form of biotic (plants, animals, bacteria etc.) or abiotic (water, temperature, soil pH etc.) factors, which all have an effect on the interactions between species within the greater, ecological system. Some factors help contribute to the biodiversity (i.e. species richness and evenness) of an ecosystem, while others disturb the parameters that uphold a balanced, community structure. Small changes can allow for the introduction of invasive species, alterations in predator-prey interactions, or even affect the trajectory of an ecological community over time. In the case of community ecology, difficulties arise in the assessment of an ecosystem (or even with ecological niches) because interactions occur across differing spatial and temporal scales. And understanding how communities interact with environmental conditions, across space and time, has become ever-more important as scientists are working to assess the effects of climate change. One could make the argument that the purpose behind the Sabbath, Shemittah, and Yovel are quite practical as they are also considerations of scale. Baruch Levine, in his commentary on Leviticus [with respect to the Shemittah], “points out that letting the land lay fallow was a practical aspect of ancient agriculture, especially where extensive irrigation was utilized. He explains that it ‘served to reduce the quantity of alkalines, sodium and calcium deposited in the soil’ and thus helped preserve the land’s fertility.”[2] In this way, there are inherently scientific components to the laws regarding the Sabbath of the Land. This cannot be discounted. In any industrial society, particularly ours, any land would benefit from some rest. By eliminating all forms of human-induced, ecological disturbance – whether it be for a day, or for a year – this would then allow for some properties of complexity to emerge. But periods of rest will never negate harmful, agricultural practices; making the argument that the Shemittah is healthy for the land, is like advocating for kashrut because it has healthy food combining principles. It may be true, in some instances, but only because they’re simply side effects; they don’t resolve the more holistic, theological concerns related to the order of creation.

The mitzvot and the sabbatical laws (that are linked to the land) reveal a sacred interface – performance of the mitzvotground us in space, while the Sabbath, Shemittah, and Yovel all occur at differing intervals of time. The harmonization between actions that occur in space, with the maintenance of sanctuaries that occur in time, is about the human responsibility to return creation to its proper relationship with G-d. One cannot deny the truly beautiful socio-economic practices that are outlined in Parashat Behar. The produce in the fields during the Shemittah is left for the animals and the economically disadvantaged; produce is used as food, not commerce, and even if there is nothing left in the fields you are required to remove what you have from your home and make it available to everyone.[3] The Jubilee laws for the land are designed to protect the Israelites from permanent poverty and slavery. All ancestral lands revert back to the original owners, and those who were enslaved due to insolvency are set free. Ecological practices, and the promise of socio-economic justice, are made possible by forms of ritual that relate to the Land – for this reason alone, Parashat Behar illustrates the powerful relationship between ethics and ritual. It also challenges our idea of land ownership, the ways in which people can become custodians of that land, and how a certain type of social balance is maintained. But it’s also much more complex than proclaiming that the land exclusively belongs to G-d. Sabbatical laws that pertain to the land are designed to restore the inherent synergy between humanity and creation. This is accomplished through a form of ritualized action whereby creation can encounter its original form to renew itself and generate greater complexity. We can try to explain this through the language of science and ecology – how the practice of rest and release can contribute to even greater productivity and balance. But the emergence of new life is ultimately a return to the Garden, a recursive process that has to occur again and again – at periodic intervals – if evolution is to prevail. It’s a sanctification of nature, whereby she can speak her own truth independent of human interference. And it’s a sanctification of creation, whereby the world can see its own turning in its path around the sun.

Parashat Bechukotai, which is Hebrew for “my laws,” begins with a sequence of material blessings that G-d promises the Jewish people if they uphold their covenant. It then shifts gears and continues to – what is known as – the Admonition[4]: five series of rebukes that warn of harsh punishments, and various evils, that will befall those who attempt to destroy the covenant. This section of the Torah is a stark example of reward and punishment. The first blessings serve to encourage those who wish to follow the path outlined in the Torah, and if they do so, there are material rewards. The subsequent curses present a type of warning and threaten those who are disobedient with material punishments. In either instance, there are material consequences for human action. This is a difficult topic to broach – for example, the second verse of the Shema revolves around this same concept of reward and punishment, which was removed from the Reform movement’s newest prayer book: Mishkan T’filah. This decision was made within a much larger discussion about a theology that links climate disaster with sin.[5] But it’s also problematic to eliminate the correlation between human action and material changes. Whether the consequences are delivered by G-d, or by some other force, is an incidental discussion in a world where human action is ravaging the planet. There are still consequences for forms of human action that disrupt the balance of the natural world. This is the main point to take away. The concept reward and punishment simply highlights the law of cause and effect. And this is an important framework for humanity to recognize, because our actions have had an effect on when the rains come, or when the land gives its produce, or even on our ability to dwell safely within the land.

And this concludes the Book of Leviticus! Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazeik! Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: The relationship between the Sabbath, Shemittah, and Yovel; the tendency of the natural world to move towards greater complexity; and, how forms of human action can disrupt the balance of the natural world


Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Seidenberg, David Mevorach. Kabbalah and Ecology. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[1] “You shall count for yourself seven cycles of seven sabbatical years, seven years times seven; the years of the seven cycles of sabbatical years shall be for you forty-nine years.” (25:8) [2] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.749 [3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.697 [4] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.709 [5] Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology, p.2

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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