“It’s the ground that can never be replaced… They don’t make any more ground, and this ground in the spillway is the best in the world.”
Last week the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited a hole in the Mississippi river levee, flooding the spillway, in order to save a small town. In the process they sacrificed precious Missouri farm land. The New York Times (May 3, 2011) quoted one farmer’s words of praise and reverence for the land he and his family farmed for their entire lives.
Years ago when my family and I used to boat on the mighty Mississippi we would marvel at the homes on the river’s banks. Why would people build on a flood plain? Every year the Mississippi river floods. Every year the river nourishes the surrounding farm lands. Some years the floods are greater than others. Precious land comes at great cost. Apparently this is nature’s equation. And so every year families have to flee their homes. There is pull of the land that defies reason. There is the pull of an ancestral home that surpasses explanation. It is the sanctity of the land that pulls families toward it.
This week’s Torah portion, Behar, is about the sanctity of the land of Israel. So revered is this land that it alone is granted a sabbatical year. “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord.” What is the purpose of this sabbatical year, a year in which the land must be allowed to lie fallow? Its purpose is twofold. On the one hand it is a reminder that only God truly owns the land. There is in truth no property ownership. The land is lent to us by God. On the other hand the sabbatical year teaches us that everything, that all of God’s creations, must rest. Menuchah, Shabbat rest, is a universal right. It is not just a Jewish obligation, but instead a right that every living thing must enjoy. The land as well is a living and breathing creation.
Thus the sabbatical year of the land should rekindle in us a reverence for the land. To be sure the Torah’s focus is the land of Israel and its inherent holiness. Nonetheless we learn from this portion that land is sacred. And we must therefore regain a reverence for the land and nature. There is a majesty of the earth that is lost to many of our contemporaries. We appear only to revere nature’s awesome power. These recent storms remind us however not only of nature’s fury but also of its grandeur. The sabbatical year and the river’s flooding remind us about nature’s cycle that we try in vain to defy.
We must say as well, along with farmers, “The ground beneath our very feet is the best in the world.”
The Zionist philosopher A.D Gordon once wrote: “At times you imagine that you, too, are taking root in the soil that you are digging; like all that is growing around, you are nurtured by the light of the sun’s rays with food from heaven. You feel that you, too, live a life in common with the tiniest blade of grass, with each flower, each tree; that you live deeply in the heart of nature, rising up from all and growing straight up into the expanse of the world…”
Gordon’s primary concern was the spiritual power to be found in working the land. But his lesson is still apt for our generation. Each of us must find a way to reclaim the earth as our own, to regain a sacred connection to the land. It should not occur to us when the land is washed away. We should recognize it and proclaim it each and every day.