Thursday, 27 May 2010

Written by Leo Baeck College Vice Principal, Rabbi Dr Michael Shire

In this double portion, we focus on two questions. In the first section, we are asked ‘ How can we redeem the Land’?. In the second section, we are asked, ‘How can we redeem ourselves’? This relationship of Land to people is a continuous theme throughout these portions and prompts us to think of how we relate to the very land upon which we live and how the resulting sense of responsibility has tested and challenged us particularly in modern times.

Parashat Behar presents laws regulating the Sabbatical year in which for six years after sowing the fields, there is to be a seventh year lying fallow. Every fiftieth year likewise is a celebration of the jubilee and liberty to be granted to all Israelites who have had to resort to indentured labour due to debt or poverty. Parashat Bechukotai recalls the promises made to the Israelites if they are faithful to God’s Commands but warns them if they are not. Peace, security and abundance of the land is promised while misery and ruin will come if they turn away.

A.D. Gordon (1856-1922), the Zionist thinker and writer who strongly encouraged the work of manual agricultural labour in order to redeem a broken People wrote, “What relation does this ‘I’ bear to the world and the world to me? Is there anything which unites me all that lives and exists; a great deep account, an account that is at one and the same time rational and poetic.” This deep relationship with the land that the early Zionists developed in order to build up the land, also built them up. But this is not a relationship of child to mother as the ancient Greeks might have understood. For biblical Judaism according to Abraham Joshua Heschel, the earth is humanity’s sister equally a creation of God exalted for her grandeur and abundance. Praise is due to the One who created both humanity and land.

Indigenous peoples like the Aborigines saw their gods within the land as rocks and watercourses became sacred in and of themselves. The spirits of those gods remain in the natural features of the landscape eternally and the land remains holy to them. However this close proximity to nature also gave such people a theology of the land that remains significant to their culture and worldview. Here are the words of the late Steve Biko, eloquent leader of the South African Black Consciousness Movement, ‘ Thus in its entirety the African Culture spells us out as People particularly close to nature. This close proximity to nature enables the emotional component in us to be so much richer in that it  makes it possible for us, without any apparent difficulty to feel for people and to easily identify with them, in any emotional situation arising out of suffering…We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this field of human relationship.

Our biblical passages offer us our own distinctive relationship between adam and adama and their joint Creator. Just as we act as stewards of the land, so the produce of the land is reflective of our moral obligations. This interdependence is certainly one we have taken more seriously in our own time. The Midrash highlights this relationship when it teaches, “‘Consider the work of God; for who can make that straight which God has made crooked’ When the Holy One created the first man, God took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him. Behold my works, how beautiful and commendable they are. All that I have created, for your sake I created it. Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy my universe; for if you corrupt it there is no one to repair it after you. Not only that but you will cause death to befall Moses, that man of righteousness.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

Rabbi Dr Michael Shire
May 2010

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