לְדָוִ֗ד מִ֫זְמ֥וֹר לַֽ֭יהֹוָה הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל וְיֹ֣שְׁבֵי בָֽהּ׃
Of David. A psalm.
The earth is the Eternal’s and all that it holds,the world and its inhabitants. (Psalm 24:1)
I remember memorizing the Hebrew and English of this psalm for my Bat Mitzvah preparations. The first few verses of Psalm 24 began one of the Torah services within Gates of Prayer, the Reform Movement’s siddur at the time, and it was one of the many selections from the worship service required of us students. I still hear it myself reciting it in my head, almost sing-songy, and certainly without any sense of what the text was trying to teach. It was just another check on my list of sections of the service I had to lead.
Looking back now, my “rabbi brain” begins to race with fundamental environmental and ethical teachings based on these words. The implications of such few but profound words are astounding. Questions to ask fellow scholars arise: What does it mean that the earth is God’s? How does that affect our understanding of our responsibility to the earth? And how are we supposed to treat each other if all of the world’s inhabitants also belong to God?
Parashat Behar offers inspiring answers to these questions. The text instructs us as to the ritual of the Shmita year: A sabbath for the land, meant to take place every seven years (Lev. 25:2). Shmita allows the land to lie fallow for a year, and to observe a Shabbat of its own. Just as we seek to replenish our energetic and psychological reserves each Shabbat, so, too, are we commanded to allow the earth to replenish its nutrients and rest.
Though the Shmita year has many limitations on what we are allowed to do with regards to our harvests (“You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land” [Lev. 25:5]), and we are presumably aware of our fulfillment of God’s commands in relation to the earth, there is nevertheless a sense of ownership of the land. Yes, we must let it rest, but it’s still ours and we’ll get right back to it in one year.
The Yovel’s implications are entirely different. We learn about the Yovel, the Jubilee year, which falls after “seven weeks of years,” and is thus marked every fifty years (Lev. 25:8,10). You thought this land was yours? You thought these servants were yours? You thought that these debts were yours to collect in perpetuity?
הָאָ֗רֶץ לֹ֤א תִמָּכֵר֙ לִצְמִתֻ֔ת כִּי־לִ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֧ים וְתוֹשָׁבִ֛ים אַתֶּ֖ם עִמָּדִֽי׃
“But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine;
you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23)
All of this is God’s. The world and all who dwell here. We are but strangers, renters, tenants and caretakers of the land. We may imagine that we have a claim to the labor of a fellow who is indebted to us, but in the Jubilee, it is all forgiven and they may return to their own lives. We may think that the choices we make are inconsequential to the rest of humanity in the present and future, but Jewish tradition demands that we never give in to that apathy or indifference.
כִּֽי־עֲבָדַ֣י הֵ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לֹ֥א יִמָּכְר֖וּ מִמְכֶּ֥רֶת עָֽבֶד׃
“For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt;
they may not give themselves over into servitude” (Lev. 25:42)
I suppose that some would read these lines of sacred text and think, “If none of it belongs to me, then it doesn’t matter what I do it.” It reminds me of how someone might treat an apartment they are renting versus how they might treat a home which is their very own. Perhaps, when something is ours, it feels more special or sacred to us. Each hole we nail in the wall feels more monumental in our own home, but maybe not as much as if we are just renting (though I was always worried about getting my security deposit back!). Our societies seem to value how much stuff we have, what assets we can claim, and what has our name on it.
Parashat Behar makes us stop and remember: we’ve got it all wrong. What makes this entire world special and sacred and precious to us is that it is a holy gift from God. The food we eat, the places in which we live, the lands we call home, these are tangible, living examples of God’s magnificent creation. Knowing that we are but borrowing this planet should make us treat it even more carefully and tenderly. This heirloom of myriad generations before us – through many Shmita years and Yovel celebrations of release – must remain a gift for all who follow.
Unfortunately, we are all too aware of the indifference many human beings on our planet hold towards sustainability of the earth, or of the welfare of the other human beings with whom we share this earth. We witness the destruction of our planet, of the dehumanization of the other, of the selfishness and greed of so many in leadership and power positions.
I am grateful to be part of a faith tradition which unites all of us as inhabitants of one planet. I treasure our heritage and its reminder that this is all holy. And it is all fragile. And we must care. Or we have failed in one of our most fundamental duties to God, to ourselves, and to each other.
Let us not wait for some future Jubilee year when all these inspiring deeds are to take place. Instead, let us “proclaim liberty throughout the land” (Lev. 25:10) whenever and however we can. Let us recommit ourselves to environmental justice. Let us recommit ourselves to the preservation of human rights and dignities. Let us recognize the abundance which is found in certain parts of our world and ensure that its bounty can be shared by all. Because the earth is God’s, as are all who dwell here.