Thursday, 19 May 2022

Written by David-Yehuda Stern

A Kept Land, A Kept People

This week’s Torah portion is B’chukotai, which means ‘my statutes,’ and  tells of the rich blessings that will be bestowed on the Israelites if they are true to God and God’s ways.

This Torah portion also contains the infamous Tocheichah, a lengthy section of text detailing the horrific consequences that will befall the Israelites should they fail to observe God’s laws and commandments. So ominous and dreadful are the curses contained within that some communities, when reading it from the Torah, recite it in a whisper. Whilst both the blessings and curses contained within B’chukotai are quite wide ranging, a clear agricultural message emerges. Obey God and the land will yield abundant produce, disobey God and suffer famine.

“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land” (Lev. 26 3-5).

In the Tocheichah we read that if the Israelites fail to obey God,

“I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle it shall be appalled by it” (Lev. 26.32).

Given the Israelites total dependence on the land for their survival it comes as little surprise that this should be the focus of so much Biblical reward and punishment. Likewise, a people dependent on the land will have numerous laws and commandments designed to enable a healthy and sustainable agricultural system. In fact, part of the Tocheichah is a direct response to a very specific commandment. In B’chukotai we read that, if the Israelites disobey God,

“Then shall the land make up for its shabbat years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its shabbat years” (Lev. 26:34) .

What are the ‘sabbath years’ that the Israelites must observe for all time? This is the shemittah – sabbatical year – that we read about in B’har; the first of our Torah portions that we will read today.

“Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: when you enter the land that I will assign to you, the land shall observe a shabbat of the Eternal.

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 shabbat of complete rest, a shabbat of the Eternal: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard” (Lev. 25 2-4)

Today, in the modern State of Israel, the laws of shemittah are still observed; with the next sabbatical year beginning this Rosh Hashanah! Rav Abraham Isaac Kook , the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, declared that, “Shemittah does to the nation, what Shabbat does to the individual”. What does Shabbat do for the individual? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests that,

“The meaning of the Shabbat is to celebrate time rather than space.

Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space;

on the Shabbat we try to become attuned to holiness in time.

It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation;

from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

Or, as Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, explains, each person must approach Shabbat, “with integrity informed by the core value expressed in the mitzvah:  that we should have a day different from all others to concentrate on that which is really important in our lives.”

In this way, Shabbat provides the individual with an opportunity to step back from their day-to-day routine. It is a chance to pause, take a deep breath, and rejuvenate. Shabbat may at first sound counterintuitive; surely humans don’t need to be commanded to take a break? However, as you probably know, giving yourself permission to take moments of respite is surprisingly difficult; even though they are indeed very necessary.

So too with the land on which we still depend; it also requires the opportunity to pause, take a deep breath, and rejuvenate.

Shemittah, and the associated warnings within the Tocheichah, provide us with a stark reminder to ensure the land is allowed to remain fallow every seven years.

The prominent 19th/20th century essayist, Asher Ginsberg (also known as Ahad Ha’am) famously declared that, “More than the Jewish People have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” So too, ‘More than the people have kept the land, the land has kept the people.’ Therefore, this Shabbat, let us renew our commitment to the land; ensuring it is treated with the dignity and honour it deserves.

Shabbat shalom!

David-Yehuda Stern 5th year LBC rabbinic student



The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.