The Torah is quite literal in its understanding of human events. It proposes the following: if you do good then you will receive many blessings. If you do bad then evil will befall you. This week’s portion proclaims: “If you follow My Laws and faithfully observe My commandments…you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.… But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments … I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you—consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and body to languish…” (Leviticus 26)
This theology does not of course comport with reality. Each of us can name any number of righteous people whose lives were sadly cut short. Far too many people who fill their lives with noble pursuits are not blessed with a fair allotment of years. We can also name others who never, for example, gave a penny to tzedakah yet who still live a long, healthy, untroubled life. The equity and justice that the Torah promises is never apparently realized or matched by our everyday experiences.
Our tradition offers many explanations for this discrepancy between the Torah’s promises and our observations. I favor the suggestion that what we read in the Torah is not so much theology but instead a prayer. Who among us would not pray that everything be perfectly measured and fairly balanced? I pray that the world and our lives could be measured by such perfect justice. Such is not our reality. But it remains my prayer.
Yet in one regard the Torah’s literalism appears to match recent, contemporary experiences. The Torah also declares: “You shall faithfully observe My laws and all My regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in vomit you out.” (Leviticus 20:22) The Torah is of course speaking in particular about the land of Israel. That land remains the place to which we lavish the most concern. The Torah contends that continuing to reside in that land is intimately tied to our behavior.
Still this phrase has been whirling in my thoughts these past months. Our experiences of this past year suggest even more that nature has a temper. My hometown is, for example, once again besieged by record breaking floods. Our own Long Island is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Sandy. High school students in the Rockaways only just returned to their school on Monday. Why is there still debate? Scientists agree that many of these changes are caused by global warming.
We are indeed responsible for these changes. We have failed to live up to the Torah’s mandate “to till the earth and tend it.” (Genesis 2:15) We are stewards of God’s nature. While Judaism clearly teaches that we can use nature for our own benefit we also have a responsibility to care for it and ensure that our children and grandchildren can derive the same benefit. There are not an infinite number of natural resources to forever be exploited.
We have failed to live up to this challenge. The hurricanes signal our failure as much as they indicate nature’s fury. Yet there is time to mend our mistakes and fashion a different future for our descendants. There are opportunities to renew our commitment to this biblical command to be stewards of the earth.
Only one time does the Torah state that God will remember the land. It occurs in this week’s portion: “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.” (Leviticus 26:42) What prompts this remembrance by God? It is our repentance. It is our recognition of our failures. God is moved by our repentance. We need only change.
I wonder. Is it possible that the Torah is correct and that our present reality is the realization of its prophecy? Is it also possible that God could be moved by our repentance and that we can once again live in harmony with the land?