Emanuel Synagogue

Behar: A crucially important parsha for our time

The Sabbath is probably one of the most radical and innovative ideas that our Torah has bequeathed to humanity. Just as we are commanded to cease all work every week from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday, so too we are commanded to let the earth rest every seventh year. This practice is known in our tradition as shmita, literally release. Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you come to the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath to the Lord (Leviticus 25: 2). The chapter continues, “But in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord: you shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard (Leviticus 25: 4).

The laws of shmita are intricate and complex but essentially every seventh year, the land in Israel, along with the fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes are grown on it, are subject to rest. Therefore, land owned by Jews in Israel is to be left fallow every seventh year for a year. 

The wisdom and essence of these shmita laws have become apparent and relevant during our time perhaps more than any time in the history of humanity. Many scientists, geologists, in particular, believe that from the beginning of the industrial revolution circa 1750, we have entered a new and dangerous era of geological time known as the Anthropocene. This is a time when humans have become the most influential species on our planet. Our planet is around 4.5 billion years old. Humanity has been roaming the planet for a mere 200,000 years and in this short period of time, we have altered the physical, chemical and biological nature of Earth. The fact that this shift is potentially disastrous for humanity and all life needs no further articulation in this article. What is fascinating and inspiring for us is that our Torah and ancient sages understood that our earth and all that dwell on it are deeply and profoundly interconnected. The Torah understood that we cannot relentlessly exploit the land and that we need to respect, nurture and honour it. 

We cease work on Shabbat because we are Imitatio Dei, in the image and the likeness of God. Just as God rested on the seventh day of creation, so do we. Ceasing from work on the Sabbath is not a passive act but rather an active desire to realise the sacred nature of creation and our role in it as loving stewards of this planet. In doing so, we become a holy community. If the land is commanded to rest every seventh year, then our tradition understands that the landtoo is in the image and likeness of the Divine source of all life. When we exploit and abuse our planet and its systems,we are dishonouring the sacred call of the Divine to respect, nurture and lovingly tend to this beautiful home of ours. Traditionally, shmita and all the laws pertaining to it are focused on land in Israel. However, truly great ideas,regardless of their cultural and historical origins, are universal and transformative at their core. Studying and reflecting on the essence of shmita has the potential in our times to redress the imbalance and destructive nature of life in the Anthropocene.

As I was studying Behar and reflecting upon the laws of shmita, I couldn’t help but think back to a recent trip I took with Michal to Bellingen. As we walked through the wondrous colourful maze of rainforests in the area, a feeling of biophilia – a deep connection with nature – permeated the very essence of my being. I felt the deep sacred interconnectedness of all life with every step I took and every rock I climbed. This experience continues to affect and inform me in all that I do. 

As we read through the laws of shmita this week in our synagogue, let us all take the time to connect with nature. Let us reflect upon how we can all help restore the sacred balance of our beautiful planet. In so doing, we play our sacred role in helping the earth exult, the sea and all within it thunder and the forest and trees shout for joy (after Psalm 96:11-13).