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Behar Sermon

What follows is the sermon delivered on Friday, May 13.

The Torah portion makes clear that the land of Israel is particularly dear.  It is of course the holy land.  This is why it alone is granted a sabbatical year.

One might therefore think, especially with the success of modern Zionism, that only the land of Israel is holy.  But in fact all lands are holy.  The earth, the very ground beneath our feet, is holy. 

Our blessings do not say, for example, “Thank You God for the fruit of Israel,” but instead “for the fruit of the earth—borei pri ha-adamah.”  The Psalms declare, in a decidedly universal tone, “The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds; the world and all its inhabitants.  For God founded it upon the ocean, set on the farthest streams.” (Psalm 24)

The Hebrew word for earth here in this text is ha-aretz, the land.  Yet the intention is clear.  It is the earth, the world, all lands that is intended.    Psalm 104 declares: “How many are the things You have made, O Lord; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations.”  This psalm goes on to provide a litany of God’s earthly creations.

Recently I have been thinking about this psalm and of course about the power of nature.  Ironically it is often nature’s fury that reminds me of nature’s majesty.  There were the tsunamis and tornadoes.  And now there is the flooding of the Mississippi.  We see on the news renewed evidence of the psalmist’s words: “You make springs gush forth in torrents; they make their way between the hills.”

The psalmist continually reminds us.  “God looks at the earth and it trembles; God touches the mountains and they smoke.”  And so I have no choice but to: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; all my life I will chant hymns to my God.  May my prayer be pleasing to Him; I will rejoice in the Lord.” 

As we again stand before the awesome power of nature, we have no choice but to sing God’s praises.  At times that is all that can rescue us from the earth’s recent fury.  We require such reverence not only before God but before nature.

For too long we have believed that we are masters of nature, that we can control nature, that we can tame the mighty Mississippi.  But its name alone should suggest otherwise.  We can build better locks and dams and even higher levees, but nature cannot be tamed.  In fact some have suggested that our lock and dam system has made catastrophic floods more likely.  Furthermore we know now that these dams prevent vital nutrients from reaching the river’s delta.

I am not of course suggesting that we give up this effort entirely.  Reverence combined with knowledge would be a much better approach.  We would do well to remind ourselves of God’s admonition to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?  Speak if you have understanding.”

And so we must relearn this truth.  All lands are indeed holy.  It is not just one land.  It is not just our backyard but all the earth.  Zionism implies that only one land is holy.  In fact Israel’s Declaration of Independence has contributed to this misunderstanding when it states: “Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, was the birthplace of the Jewish people.  Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped.”

But this is inaccurate and a misreading of history.  The Torah was given in Sinai, in the wilderness.  It was given there to make clear that it was given to all.  It was given there moreover so that no land could claim the Torah as its alone.

Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, is of course my favorite land.  It is my favorite because so much of Jewish history occurred there.  I love nothing more than to hike its wadis and play in its waterfalls.  But it is not the only land.

The reverence for the land that the sabbatical year suggests is something that we must apply to all lands. We must restore a reverence for the earth and the land. We can no longer afford to do whatever we want with any l and. And so let us restore a reverence for the earth in our hearts and souls.