For whatever reason, much of the children’s entertainment in the 1990s that filled my home growing up focused on saving the earth. Nature and animal conservation were prominent themes in movies and television. “FernGully,” “Pocahontas” (a deeply problematic movie), “Free Willy,” and “Captain Planet” were prime entertainment. As a kid who was well-acquainted with all of the above media, I drove my parents crazy with my need to recycle and pick up litter wherever I went. Earth Day was on par with all the major holidays for me; I thought it was my personal duty to save the earth. I was the proud, in-your-face, staunch environmentalist.
As I study Torah, I’ve come to realize that God is also an environmentalist.
I would say that the Earth is God’s gift to us, but “gift” is not quite the right word. The Earth is more like a “family heirloom” for all humankind. When you’re bequeathed a family heirloom, it’s understood that you can’t just do whatever you want with it; your job is to take care of the heirloom, keeping it pristine so that it can be given to the next generation.
My partner and I do not own our house; we rent. We have a large backyard. We’re not allowed to alter or change the land. We prune the trees, sweep up the leaves, and have a beautiful garden. We’ll be leaving the land in better shape than when we found it. If we bought our house and got the deed to the land, I still wouldn’t think of myself as a “landowner.” To me, a deed doesn’t mean that I own the land; it only means that I am responsible for taking care of it. The land belongs to God.
This idea, that the land belongs to God, is made clear in Parashat B’har, which introduces the concept of Shmita. God instructs the Israelites that they are allowed to till, plant, and harvest crops for six years. However, on the seventh year, all of Israel must cease working the land. This is known as a Sabbatical year – a “Sabbath” year.
My favorite line of B’har occurs when God is giving instructions for the Jubilee year, which occurs after seven cycles of Sabbatical years: “The land must not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to me and you reside in my land as geirim and toshavim” (Leviticus 25:23). We were given the land at God’s behest, and we must earn the right to remain there. Geirim and toshavim have very interesting meanings. A ger, in this case, means “temporary inhabitant.” A toshav is a sojourner or a stranger. In other words, the Israelites are tenants on God’s land.
The Rabbis argued that the Israelites were only able to remain on the land if they followed God’s covenant. Dwelling on this land is a privilege and responsibility. Like all of God’s covenants, there is a condition: If we respect the land, we will derive the benefits of a bountiful existence. However, if we treat the earth disrespectfully, we will lose our right to live here. The Shmita rule is backed up by science. During the Shmita year, the soil’s sodium is reduced, which helps crops grow better the next year.
In B’chukotai, we are told that if we follow God’s commandments, we will have blessings. God explains that when we follow the laws, we will have rain, an abundance of fruit, bread, and peace. But if we do not listen to God, we will be cursed.
Although it is not explicitly stated, I believe that God is establishing a covenant with us here. If we take good care of the land, we will prosper. But if we do not, we will lose the land forever.
God elaborates, “I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper … Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit” (Leviticus 26:19-20).
I think that these curses have already begun. We are already seeing more frequent and more forceful tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, droughts, and earthquakes. We have a holy duty to invest in renewable sources of energy and lessen our dependence on substances that are killing our planet.
Last week in my synagogue’s board meeting, we discussed making the switch to a lawn that needs less water, mowing, and doesn’t use toxic chemicals. Switching to an eco-friendly lawn may not heal the entire earth, but if everyone makes one small step, we will transform this earth to a land God would be proud of. As we read in Ethics of the Sages 2:21, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
The last verse of Leviticus reads, “These are the commandments that God gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 27:34). The holiday of Shavuot, which we will celebrate in just a few weeks, celebrates God’s revelation of Torah. But that’s not the only time God gave us our laws. We know from the opening verse of Leviticus that some laws were given at the Tent of Meeting. This tells us that Sinai is not a place; it’s a state of awareness. In four months, the high holidays will descend upon us and we’ll hear in the prayer of Un’taneh Tokef “And with a great shofar it is sounded, and still, small voice shall be heard.” Whenever you hear the voice of God – that still, small voice within that commands you to do what is right and just – you, too, are standing at Sinai.