Often, arguments about environmental stewardship focus on the importance of preserving human life. What would it mean to center the land itself as an object of our concern regardless of its effect on human flourishing? This week's parashah challenges us to do just that, to see the land from God's point of view and to take a giant, humble step backward in estimating our own importance to its continued life.
Ki Li Haaretz: Taking Seriously the Integrity of the Land
The poor of that village were accustomed to strolling outside at the onset of evening. Their daily work done, their wages already spent on a new needle or sandal strap or flask of wine for the Sabbath’s Kiddush, they would often venture to the fields to take in a modest meal. The farmers of the town were scrupulous about peah, the requirement to leave the corners of their field untouched so the needy could gather food in privacy.
On this day, Devorah the Levite was walking with Elisheva, daughter of Menachem—two acquaintances recently met as water drawers at the same well. Upon reaching the nearest field, Devorah, who was quite hungry, plucked from a tree a ripe and ready fig. As she brought the fruit to her lips, Elisheva startled her by calling out, “Stop!”
“What’s wrong?” Devorah asked.
“You can’t steal that fruit,” her companion replied.
“But it isn’t stealing,” Devorah said. “As the Torah says, ‘You shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field…. You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger…. (Lev. 23:22).’”
“I understand that, of course,” Elisheva answered. “I didn’t mean you were stealing from the farmer—you were about to steal from God, as our sages teach us, ‘Anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if she stole from God’ (BT B’rachot 35b). When you recite a blessing over the food, you ask permission from God to eat what’s his, and God’s answer is always yes.”
“Thank you, Elisheva,” Devorah said, “for that reminder. And thank you, too, God. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, borei p’ri ha-eitz.”
I hope you liked the story. And now let’s ask: what if we really believed in it? What if we built our human society around the fundamental principle that, to quote the psalm, “The earth and all it contains belongs to the Eternal” (Ps. 24:1)? This week’s Torah portion challenges us with just such a vision.
We read in Parashat B’har a series of magnificently idealistic proclamations. God instructs the Israelites to work their land for six years and then, “In the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Eternal. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard; you shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land” (Lev. 25:4-5). Every seventh year, the fruits of the soil are untouched by human tools, and after seven of these sabbatical cycles, the fiftieth year—the Jubilee—shall be proclaimed as year of release, when all Israelites return to their ancestral tribal holdings and all debts, large and small, are forgiven.
One of the key provisions of the Jubilee year is:
וְהָאָרֶץ לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת כִּי־לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי־גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי׃
But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me (Lev. 25:23).
That is, the land cannot truly be owned by human beings: כִּי־לִי הָאָרֶץ, “The land is mine,” says God. Humans are mere residents on it. Thus, the 13th-century sage Jacob ben Asher taught that the Torah gives a warning to both the potential buyer and the potential seller of land: If you attempt to transfer ownership permanently, you are guilty of a serious violation. In other words: We don’t make the rules. The land is free of us, belonging only to its Creator, and we are bound to respect and preserve its integrity.
Judaism would never suggest that humans shouldn’t work the land or craft it to better support our own development and growth. But this week’s Torah portion—and the book of Leviticus more broadly—insist that the purpose of the earth is not to fulfill human needs. This religious principle is obscured by the atmosphere of consumerism in which we live and even struggles to find a voice among today’s advocates of climate justice.
For instance, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism summarizes our movement’s values on climate change. While the statement does mention that “any act of destruction is an offense against the property of God,” most of its language focuses on the welfare of human beings. Thus: “Humankind has a solemn obligation to improve the world for future generations. Addressing climate change requires us to learn how to live within the ecological limits of the earth so that we will not compromise the ecological or economic security of those who come after us.” That is, we need to protect the earth mostly so that human beings can live securely upon it. My impression—and correct me, after services, if I’m wrong—is that this is common among environmental activists. There is a nod toward the integrity of the land, but human life ultimately takes center stage.
But if there’s one thing Leviticus wants to accomplish, it’s the decentering of humans from the story of creation. In her essay “Ecology in a Biblical Perspective,” Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes: “It is in priestly writings … that we find a profound sense of the awesomeness of nature, of the revelation of God through the beauty of nature, and of the place of humanity as a creature within nature.” Thus, she continues, “For whatever reason God created the cosmos, God has great allegiance to it. Humanity cannot continue to damage the earth for its own benefit” (68). Arthur Green as well, in his book Radical Judaism, argues that “Mitzvah in our day means taking responsibility not just for the ongoing advancement of evolution but for the survival of the planet itself.” Earth should exist not because we live upon it but because God created it. If we are to say—as we so often do—that every human being is worthy of life because each person is like an entire world, how much the more so is the entire world worthy of life in and of itself!
We should, of course, never lose sight of our Jewish obligation to help humanity flourish and thrive. But our parashah reminds us of what I think is actually much harder to keep in mind: the earth as well deserves our respect. Tikva Frymer-Kensky ultimately concludes, “We must hold both elements, humanity and the ecosystem, in equilibrium,” (68) noting that “God’s ultimate purpose for the earth, whatever it may be, includes a functioning human and animal community” (67). On this Shabbat in particular, as we consider the challenging message of parashat B’har, let us remind ourselves to give honor where honor is due. Let us recall the words of the psalm, repeated in our daily prayers:
מָה־רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהֹוָה כֻּלָּם בְּחׇכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ׃
How many are the things You have made, O Eternal; You have made them all with wisdom;
the earth is full of Your creations (Ps. 104:24)
יְהִי כְבוֹד יְהֹוָה לְעוֹלָם יִשְׂמַח יְהֹוָה בְּמַעֲשָׂיו׃
May the glory of the Eternal endure forever; and may the Eternal rejoice in the works of God’s hands (Ps. 104:31).
 הזהיר הכתוב למוכר או לשניהם שלא יעשו ממכרם לצמיתות ואם יעשו כן יעברו בלאו.
This warning may be addressed by the Torah to both the seller and the buyer to advise them that by making individual arrangements bypassing Torah law, they both make themselves guilty of a serious violation of the Torah.
 Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought, Vol. 1 (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000), p. 67.
 Ibid., 68.
 Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition (Yale University Press, 2010), p. 154.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”