This coming Shabbat, the traditional Jewish reading of the Torah reaches chapters 25 and 26 of Leviticus.
Chapter 25 is famous, especially because the quotation on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof," comes from that passage of Torah. It is not talking about civil liberty -- freedom of speech and of the press. It is talking about economic freedom – – ending a period of slavery -- and freedom for the Earth from being overworked, freedom to rest.
Chapter 25 begins by asserting that the pattern of work and rest for the Earth comes straight from Sinai, like what we call the Ten Commandments. It teaches us that every seventh year, we must allow the Earth to rest fpr a full year from the work we usually do to make it bring forth the food we need to live.
We must do this because we are not in fact the owners of any plot of Earth. Only YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh --- the InterBreath of Life – is the “Owner" of the Earth, and the InterBreath of Life can keep on breathing only if there is time to pause, to rest. If we do, says Torah, the Earth will be even more fruitful in the years that follow.
And what if we don't allow the earth to rest? Chapter 26 teaches us that the earth will rest anyway – – on our heads. It will rest through drought and famine, flood and unheard-of superstorms, plagues of diseases in unexpected places, the exile of whole peoples in what we would now call a flood of refugees.
Chapter 26 reads as if it were written by a contemporary climate scientist, describing what we will suffer if we do not change our business as usual into a new kind of communal alertness to the needs and joys of all humanity and of all life-forms on our planet.
This week as we read Torah, we can recognize that the biblical tradition is the spiritual expression of an Earth-based people made up of shepherds and farmers, who knew that overworking the Earth and not allowing it to rest would bring on disaster.
This week’s reading is the peak of earthy Sinai, but it does not stand alone. The parable of Eden warns us that in the midst of Earth’s wonderful abundance, if we refuse to restrain ourselves and try to gobble up all the abundance, it will vanish and we will be forced to toil with the sweat pouring down our faces to find barely enough to eat from an Earth that we have overworked.
And as another consequence of our subjugating Mother Earth, we will all suffer by the subjugation of women by men. The Torah beckons us to heal from both disasters by correcting our misdeed.
The Torah also offers us a parable of healing. After the Pharaoh who has brought Plagues upon the Earth is dissolved into the waters of the Sea, we find once more an Earth of joyful abundance.
The Manna comes –-- along with Shabbat. We learn a kind of self-restraint that is not ascetic but is joyful. This new sabbatical invention frees us to be at peace with Earth and with each other. Shabbat comes to heal us from the deep misdeed of Eden.
(We ought to recognize that in Jewish theology, Shabbat is the analogue of what Christians see in Jesus as the New Adam, healing the original sin of Eden. We even say that the Messianic Age is yom sheh-kulo Shabbat, the day that is fully Shabbat; that Shabbat is the foretaste of the Messianic Age, as Christians await Jesus’ fulfillment in the Second Coming.)
So the Manna story is profound and powerful. But the story is only a parable; and a parable works only if it leads to practice.
The practice that reaches toward making the parable reality is the practice of the sabbatical year, the practice we read about this week.
This earthy strand of Torah ascends once more into a vision, a parable, of Eden once again ---- set forth in the poetry of the Song of Songs.
In the Song, Humanity and Earth are in love with each other, and women are free, no longer subjugated. Men and women can lovingly embrace with neither mastering the other. That is Eden for a grown-up human race.
The crisis that Humanity now faces in its relationship with Earth has reawakened for us this crucial thread of Torah about the spiritual experience of shepherds and farmers on the land, with the land. But in our own day, it is not a sliver of land but the entire planet that needs the long overdue rhythm of restfulness, of Shabbat.
How do we reinterpret the ancient teaching to make a new practice for our own generation?