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Behar-Bechukotai, Nature's Fury and Blossoming Trees

This week’s Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, 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. “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard…” (Leviticus 25)

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 sacred. The earth, the very ground beneath our feet, must be held dear.

Our blessings do not say, for example, “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, creator of the fruit of Israel,” but instead “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 it on the farthest streams.” (Psalm 24)

Leviticus however speaks of the land, using the Hebrew word ha-aretz, the land. Yet the intention is clear. It is the earth, the world and all its lands, that is to be held sacred. The Psalmist again 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.” (Psalm 104)

Recently I have been meditating on this psalm and thinking about the power of nature. Ironically it is often nature’s fury that reminds me of nature’s majesty. There was of course the recent devastating earthquake in Nepal. May its victims soon find comfort. In recent months and years we have witnessed hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, droughts and wild fires. The psalmist continually reminds us. “God looks at the earth and it trembles; God touches the mountains and they smoke.” We are reminded that nature is both majestic and furious.

At times all we can rescue from the earth’s devastating fury is to sing God’s praises. The psalmist again: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; all my life I will chant hymns to my God.” We likewise affirm God when seeing the ocean, hearing thunder, happening upon a rainbow or looking at blossoming trees.

Then again I wonder: how much of nature’s recent fury is within our hands? The drought in California? The tremors in Oklahoma? Are these truly acts of God? We must therefore instill 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. Recent events suggest otherwise. We can continue piling more and more sand on Long Island’s beaches but the ocean will eventually win. And God thundered, “Who closed the sea behind its doors…” (Job 38)

I am not of course suggesting that we give up these efforts entirely, that we turn aside from all attempts. We do however require far more humility before the earth’s power. Reverence combined with knowledge would be a much better approach. We would do well to remind ourselves again and again of God’s admonition to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding.” We cannot tame nature. We can instead live with reverence and humility.

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. 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 can claim the Torah as its sole possession. The midbar, the wilderness of Sinai, reminds us that all the earth is sacred.

Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, is of course my favorite land. It is my beloved 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 land. We can no longer treat the earth with contempt. We must restore a reverence for the earth in our hearts and souls.

Perhaps it begins with a blessing and prayer. The trees are again blossoming! “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe who has withheld nothing from His world and who has created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for mortals to enjoy.”