Last week, our Torah portion emphasized the mitzvah of Shemittah, the sabbatical year of rest for the land. In our look inside this commandment during services last Shabbat morning, we noted that the following week’s parshah, Behukotai, mentions the threat of exile if the Israelites do not observe the laws of Shemittah with bitter irony: “Then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years” (Leviticus 26:34). God guarantees that the land will rest, because its inhabitants have been ejected from its boundaries.
Why, ask our sages, is Israel’s rejection of the laws of Shemittah punished specifically by exile? They explained that in fulfilling this mitzvah, we are giving testimony to the idea that we are not truly masters of the earth. Rather, we are purely inhabitants of the land through the grace of God, Who permitted us “le’ovdah uleshomrah–to till it and tend it”
(Genesis 2:15). When we observe Shemittah, God sees that we are dedicated to the earth, and renews our lease for six more years. But when we ignore our responsibility to the earth, we demonstrate the arrogant appearance that the land is ours to do with as we please, so God exiles us–a fitting punishment.
Perhaps the first expectation placed in human hands was to Adam in the Garden, as quoted above–“le’ovdah uleshomrah–to till it and tend it.” Jeremy Benstein, a prominent writer on Judaism and the environment, puts it this way: “The mission is to work, the produce, to develop–but at the same time to preserve, to guard, to be vigilant that the work doesn’t get out of hand. It must remain, in a word, sustainable. Indeed, perhaps the best translation of the Biblical phrase le’ovdah uleshomrah is ‘sustainable development'” (Benstein, The Way into Judaism and the Environment, p.48).
The reading of these two Torah portions, Behar and Behukotai, provided a perfect frame for the Green Fair we held at HHJC this past Sunday. Under the leadership of Rebecca Reich, and with the help of many volunteers (including our recently graduated Hei class students), we launched a campaign of awareness of and engagement with environmental sustainability. While we may consider the economic advantages of “Green” products, let’s not forget the Torah’s “big idea” behind Shemittah: The land, the planet, is ours on loan, and we must be loyal tenants. Whether it is through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) initiative or other plans, our small steps toward environmental sustainability must reflect the values that inspire them. Because, in short, the lease isn’t eternal.