This week in the scheduled reading of the Torah we reach two chapters of Leviticus that are among my favorite passages of Torah: Chapters 25 and 26, called B’Har (“On the mountain” – that is, Sinai – and B’chukkotai – that is, “About My carved-out rules.”
Chapter 26 ends as Chapter 25 begins, with the assertion that the teaching comes from Sinai. The Torah thus lifts this chunk of itself to supernal significance, like the Ten Teachings that coime with an eruption of fire, smoke, and the sounding of an eerie shofar blast. Yet it is only beginning to be treated as a whole, and as centrally important.
I have written so often about the whole passage* that I can summarize most of it quickly and then I want to explore one part that I have not previously paid much attention to. The summary: Every seventh year, Earth must be allowed to rest from organized agriculture. In Lev. 25 this called Shabbat Shabbaton -- Shabbat to the exponential power of Shabbat. Elsewhere in Torah it is called “Shmita – “Release”: and the human community is released from debts owed by the poor to the rich, releasing the one from degradation and resentment, releasing the other from pride and anxiety.
The fiftieth year – that is, 7 x 7+1, is a year of Yovel – “Jubilee” ( a westernized transliteration, not a translation) , or in Everett Fox’s brilliant translation, “Home-bringing.” In that year, the land rests again and families are restored to their ancestral holding. The rich give up their surplus, the poor give up their misery. (This happens not on Rosh Hashanah when the year begins, but after days of healing and forgiveness on Yom Kippur – I think, to make sure the transformation happens not out of rage or fear but out of love.)
Why all this? Because no person or institution “owns” the land or Earth – only YHWH, the Interbreath of Life, Which/Who leases it for a limited time to landholders. Then Chapter 26 asks what happens if the community refuses to let the land rest for its Shabbats, and answers that the land takes its Shabbats by force – plagues of dearth and disaster, fire and famine, exile as refugees.
Both chapters speak powerfully to our generation: what we must do, to let Earth rest, and what will happen – is already happening – if we won’t. The Shmita year of Release begins next fall, according to the ancient count. But in our society the process is not limited to a single year. Its values should pervade our calendar, in every month of every year: Sharing. A pulsating economy, not one of endless ”growth” that sweeps us over a catastrophic cliff. Love for Earth as a whole and of our beloved neighborhood, its land and people.
And that’s the passage of Torah that I want to lift up. In Lev. 25: 13-45 – way more than half the chapter – Torah devotes itself to a person’s ability to redeem, recover, his/her/ their home in the original family neighborhood. That is precisely the opposite of the degrading practice of Pharaoh’s Mitzrayyim, the Tight and Narrow Land of Pharaoh’s Egypt, described in Genesis 47:21, of moving the newly enserfed Egyptians far from their homes. Indeed, the land system of Leviticus is in very detail the black-and-white reversal of Pharaoh’s Egypt.
How do we respect Torah’s concern for Earth as a whole with its concern for local neighborliness?
One suggestion: The biblical focus is food. In our lives, energy is food. Neighborhood solar-energy co-ops would in the same breath help heal all Earth from the climate crisis and help strengthen neighborhood ties and the democratic control of energy at the neighborhood level, rather than corporate control of huge solar farms or ocean-based gigantic wind turbines.
Among the proposals for a Green Jobs New Deal is for for Federal grants to solarize 30 Million American homes. Add “co-op” to that formula, and we are will on the way to a modern version of the biblical vision.
*I first wrote about this in the original Godwrestling (Schocken, 1978) and most recently in Dancing in God's Earthquake : The Coming Transformation of Religion (Orbis, 2020). For its reviews and ordering info click https://theshalomcenter.org/content/dancing-gods-earthquake-rabbi-arthur-how-order-copies, It is my life-harvest, intended not only to draw on the past but to feed the future. Together with Rabbis Jill Hammer and David Seidenberg I'll be explorong these and "other sides of Mt. Sinai" in a Zoom conversation on May 17. See --