Torah This Week: Sharecroppers to Pharaoh

For me, one of the saddest parts of Torah is what many other commentators celebrate as a great triumph. It is the way Joseph (Yosef) deals with the great famine by demanding that an entire population in danger of starving turn their land over to Pharaoh, and become sharecroppers. From Genesis 47:13-19, we learn how, during the years of famine, the farmers of Egypt on the edge of starvation year by year buy the grain stored in Pharaoh’s storehouse --first with all their silver, so that all of Egypt’s silver comes under Pharaoh’s control;  then with the seed that they had set aside for the next year’s sowing; then with ownership of the land itself; and finally with their own freedom. The result is described in  Genesis 47:20-26 (Everett Fox transl., The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995.)

 The result is described in  Genesis 47:20-26 (Everett Fox transl., The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995):


 So Yosef acquired all the soil of Egypt for Pharaoh -- for each of the Egyptians sold his field, for the famine was strong upon them- and the land went over to Pharaoh. As for the people, he transferred them into the cities, from one edge of Egypt's border to its other edge.  Only the soil of the priests he did not acquire, for the priests had a prescribed-allocation from Pharaoh, and they ate from their allocation which Pharaoh had given them, therefore they did not sell their soil. Yosef said to the people: Now that I have acquired you and your soil today for Pharaoh, here, you have seed, sow the soil! But it shall be at the ingatherings, that you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, the four other parts being for you as seed for the field and for your eating-needs, for those in your households, and for feeding your little-ones. They said: You have saved our lives! May we find favor in my lord's eyes: we will become servants to Pharaoh. And Yosef made it a prescribed-law until this day, concerning the soil of Egypt: For Pharaoh, every fifth part! Only the soil of the priests, that alone did not go over to Pharaoh.


Joseph could have freely given the stored-up grain to the people, leaving them as independent farmers. But he transferred power to Pharaoh and to himself as viceroy.  Moreover, he forced the people to move from their ancestral homes. Only the priests retained their land  -- their economic power – as well as their religious authority.

Whether or not this is an accurate factual and historical picture of a great change in Egypt’s political economy, it is the story Torah chooses to tell. And that makes it remarkable that it is precisely the opposite of the land-and-people system described in Leviticus 25 as how the Breath of Life wants the People Israel and all its settler-sojourner foreigners to live. For in that picture the people are guaranteed the right to redeem their land even if they become poor and need to become indentured servants. The king is not allowed to pile up silver  or land for himself. The priests do not own land, and so cannot add economic power to religious authority. And even if the people move, they are absolutely entitled to return once a generation to their ancestral homes.

All this is guaranteed in Leviticus by the Seventh Year, Shabbat Shabbaton (Sabbath  to the exponential power of Sabbath), the Shmita  or “Year of Release.”  So this may remind us that Yosef’s whole power trip begins with interpreting Pharaoh’s dream to predict that there will be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. He goes out of his way to say there is no way out – the future is determined.


What if he had said there would be seven years of plenty – and if Egypt treated the seventh year as a year of sabbatical rest for the land, a year of releasing the land and its people from overwork , there would be no famine? But if they farmed the land without a pause, a rest, a release – then there would be famine. (Compare Leviticus 26 as a description for what would happen if the land were not allowed to rest.) What if he had said the dream was a warning, not a prediction?

(Is the Torah suggesting that bad experience of land policy [as described in Genesis about Egypt]  has formed a much wiser sense of land policy for the Land of Israel [as expressed in Leviticus]? Or is Torah hinting that having shaped the Leviticus /Shmita rhythm out of direct experience as farmers, the writers and chanters of ancient story introduced the precise opposite of Leviticus into their tales about Joseph, to enhance freedom with a tale of enslavement? Or is Torah saying that Joseph’s whole life-path of determinism – there are no choices possible – fits with Subjugation, with Power Over others?]

 Most commentators read the rest of Genesis as a triumph for Joseph and hi family. They live affluently by Pharaoh’s grace, in a territory of their own --  Goshen. At last Joseph’s own life-long dream of and effort to win power over his equals has been rewarded. After all, this was his fourth try: seeking power over his brothers brought him into the pit and sale as a slave into Egypt. Grasping power in Potiphar’s household brought him fury from Potiphar’s wife, whom he had displaced from her role as supervisor, and who maneuvered him into prison. In prison he rises to appointment as a “trusty,” an aide to the warden – but is left a prisoner when he sets himself up as a dream interpreter for other prisoners. Finally, he rises to sit above all Egypt, next to Pharaoh himself.  His life-search finds utter triumph!

Until we turn the Torah Scroll to the Book of Exodus.

 [Please pause from this reading for a few minutes to think through the “white fire” of the blank spaces between the two books. What is the story written in the "white fire"? What happened between the two books? What does it mean? And then come back.]


As Exodus begins, Joseph’s descendants become slaves, victims of attempted genocide.

Is the Torah trying to tell us an epic story of how Subjugation of the People and the Land recoils upon the heads of Subjugators and must – if we are wise enough to hearken to the Breath of Life --  result in a Great Turning ? Is this story not merely antiquarian history but a great and hidden parable? What is its meaning for today?

Lerner's "Revolutionary Love"

Michael Lerner wrote his newest book, Revolutionary Love (University of California Press), in 2019. There was already in the world and in his mind’s eye the brutality of the Trump Administration. There was only a hint of the possibility of a world pandemic resulting from the rampant disregard by human institutions – mostly the Hyperwealthy – for the habitat of other species. And though he notes with hope the existence of Black Lives Matter, a massive national Black-led multiracial Uprising against racism was not on the country’s, or Lerner’s, agenda.

What his book is mostly about is an imagined series of social changes that would make America, and the planet, a society focused on loving connectiveness -- not competition and subjugation – and the loving means of getting  there.

 Among his proposed loving alternatives is:

  •  “Gradually disband police forces and replace them with neighborhood  security committees,  trained in de-escalation  and empathic intervention.  (These committees will be backed up in emergency situations by local community forces (neighbors trained to meet violence effectively).” (page191)

 Who knew (I think not Lerner) that this would be on the front pages everywhere while his book was still new?

 The book is peppered with such ideas. The question is how to make them do-able. Not every one of them is going to have behind it the force of an Uprising deep enough to make tens of thousands of people forget their fears of Death by Coronavirus and erupt onto the streets.

 I do want to note one other proposal out of dozens, partly because It is a special concern of mine and because Lerner gives it five pages (pp. 233-238), not just one small paragraph. That is his examination of whether it would be possible to organize in our own society, so different from ancient Israel, the Sabbatical Year commanded in Leviticus 25. 

For Torah, this is the crucial way of preventing both social disaster as economic inequality worsens and eco-disaster as Earth is treated with contempt. The Torah considers this program so central that it is said to come from Sinai, just like “Don’t make idols” and “Don’t murder.” – And so, in Lev. 26, is the recitation of specific disasters that will come if Earth is not allowed to rest every seventh year.  Lerner thinks we could do this Great Sabbath in modern America. Wonder how? Read the book!

 Lerner deals with almost every bristling “Impossible!” and “Unrealistic!” by challenging the “liberal” and “progressive” Lefts that express considerable contempt for “Love” as a transformative possibility. The Lefts’ reaction translates into contempt for religion, the one aspect of American society that still holds some love for Love.  And into contempt for the “deplorables” who depend on religion as their last gasp of breath – and of Love at least in their local communities.

 Lerner recalls the sense of frustrated and frayed connections between people, and the experience of many working-class Americans that their once-upon-a-time liberal allies see them as damaged and disreputable because they seem to be translating psychological and social fears into attacks on “the others.“

 He hopes to bring together the old Left-outs --  Blacks, Indigenous Peoples, Muslims, Spanish-speakers, women,  GLBTQIA communities, Jews – with the new Left-outs --  the “forgotten whites.” He looks to heal their split in part by their economic resentment against the ultra-rich 1/10 of 1%, but more by his appeal to their separate but shareable Love.

 His book ends with what I would call despair masked as hope. As a last resort, Lerner imagines dividing the USA in two, using the new technology that could unite clusters across territory to separate the “Progressive States of America” from the “Conservative States of America.” His comments remind me of the despairing advice on the edge of the last Civil War: “Let the erring sisters [the Southern states] depart in peace.“

But most of all he is hopeful. He hopes that the steps he proposes of actually embodying “revolutionary love” and an ultimate “Love and Justice Party” will enable the creation of a transformed United States.

Proclaim Restfulness throughout the Earth to all its Life-Forms

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,

Rabbinic Letter on Climate -Torah, Pope, & Crisis Inspire 425+ Rabbis to Call for Vigorous Climate Action

Encouraged by plans for and release of the papal Encyclical,  they call for Eco-Social Justice

As of Noon on October 29, 2015,  425 rabbis have signed a Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, calling for vigorous action to prevent worsening climate disruption and to seek eco-social justice. The text of the Rabbinic Letter and its signers are below.

 The Rabbinic Letter was initiated by seven leading rabbis from a broad spectrum of American Jewish life: Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the American Jewish University; 
Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of the Hebrew College rabbinical school; Rabbi Peter Knobel, former president, Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbininical College; Rabbi Susan Talve, spiritual leader of Central Reform Congregation, St. Louis; Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of The Shalom Center; and Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. They were joined by Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, a leader of the Orthodox community.

 The full text and list of signers follows.


 To the Jewish People, to all Communities of Spirit,

and to the World:

 A Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis

We come as Jews and rabbis with great respect for what scientists teach us – for as we understand their teaching, it is about the unfolding mystery of God’s Presence in the unfolding universe, and especially in the history and future of our planet.  Although we accept scientific accounts of earth’s history, we continue to see it as God’s creation, and we celebrate the presence of the divine hand in every earthly creature.

 Yet in our generation, this wonder and this beauty have been desecrated -- not in one land alone but ‘round all the Earth. So in this crisis, even as we join all Earth in celebrating the Breath of Life that interweaves us all -- –

 --  You sea-monsters and all deeps, Hallelu-Yah.

Fire, hail, snow, and steam, Hallelu-Yah.

Stormy wind to do God's word, Hallelu-Yah.

Mountains high and tiny hills, Hallelu-Yah (Psalm 148)

 We know all Earth needs not only the joyful human voice but also the healing human hand.

 We are especially moved when the deepest, most ancient insights of Torah about healing the relationships of Earth and human earthlings, adamah and adam, are echoed in the findings of modern science.

 The texts of Torah that perhaps most directly address our present crisis are Leviticus 25-26 and Deuteronomy 15.  They call for one year of every seven to be Shabbat Shabbaton – a Sabbatical Year – and Shmittah – a Year of restful Release for the Earth and its workers from being made to work, and of Release for debtors from their debts.

In Leviticus 26, the Torah warns us that if we refuse to let the Earth rest, it will “rest” anyway, despite us and upon us – through drought and famine and exile that turn an entire people into refugees.

This ancient warning heard by one indigenous people in one slender land has now become a crisis of our planet as a whole and of the entire human species. Human behavior that overworks the Earth – especially the overburning of fossil fuels   --- crests in a systemic planetary response that endangers human communities and many other life-forms as well.

Already we see unprecedented floods, droughts, ice-melts, snowstorms, heat waves, typhoons,

Seder for Rosh Hashanah of the Shmita/Sabbatical Year

What follows is a “Seder” for this Rosh Hashanah as we enter into the year of Shabbat Shabbaton, a year of Shmita  — releasing the Earth and each other to restful celebration. It was created by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network.  This Seder could be shared in words and foods — what comes into our mouths to nourish ourselves and what goes forth from our mouths to nourish each other in community, just as YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life breathes in and out — on the first or second night of Rosh Hashanah.


Rosh Hashanah Shemittah Seder, 5775 —-  Created by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin

This seder was created to welcome in the shemittah (Sabbatical) year. It is a template meant to be celebrated, enjoyed and adapted as participants desire. Please do share your adaptations, improvements, suggestions, etc with me, so we can have a record of what this year brought and the grist to refine the seder for the next shemittah year (5782).

 Ever since the first breath of creation, time has unfolded in cycles of seven. Six days reach their crescendo in the seventh day, Shabbat - the Sabbath, the day of rest. Six years reach their crescendo in the seventh year, Shemittah - the sabbatical, the year of renewal. Seven cycles of seven years reach their crescendo in the Jubilee year, the ultimate enactment of re-creation.

All three call forth nostalgic images of Eden, when humanity lived in abundance, peace, equity and ease. All offer a way of partial return. But there are differences among them: Jubilee is more fantasy than experience, more vision than practice. And while it remains part of our sacred narrative, it has nonetheless fallen out of our sacred calendar.

Shabbat, on the other hand, is a constant presence. It is celebrated weekly, as time apart, 25-hours of a lived dream dimension. We enter Shabbat by leaving the work-a-day world and cross into a domain that is edenic, “a taste of the world to come.” We are at leisure, eat well, avoid strife and pretend to create one world,diminishing the boundaries that daily divide us.

Shemittah sits between these two. Neither a fantasy nor a constant presence, it is both a vision of a new reality and a practice to be lived in here-and-now. It happens in the same time and space

What Jewish Organizations Are Sponsoring People's Climate March?

 First Step into ReNewed Sabbatical/ Shmita Year: Caring for Earth

In the last month, there has been a great expansion of general participants and of Jewish organizations that are co-sponsoring the People’s Climate March in New York City on Sunday afternoon, September 21.

 Organizing for the March has been strong and broad. More than 100,000 people — perhaps more than 200,000 — are likely to take part – among them labor unions, women’s organizations, religious bodies, health advocates, African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, and Native organizations, and environmentalist groups including the Sierra Club and

The process of involving the Jewish community began with two organizations – Hazon and The Shalom Center – that upon announcement of the March at once endorsed it and began sowing the seeds of broader Jewish involvement. 

Now those seeds have sprouted into a much fuller list of Jewish organizations. (See the list below.)  As of September 3,  now on board are two important Jewish organizations — the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) , and its sponsoring  and very broad Jewish umbrella-organization, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Then on September 8, two major Reform Jewish organizations — the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of Ameeican Rabbis, also came aboard.  Bruchim haba’im, Blessed are those who Arrive!

For The Shalom Center, the motto underlying  all our climate activism is: “We have the whole world in our hands!”


Just a few days after the March, the Jewish people will sound forth the Rosh Hashanah shofar that awakens us to “the seventh year” — a year devoted to healing of the Earth – the Sabbatical Year or Shmita (“Release, Non-Attachment” – see Leviticus 25). 

Indeed, Judaism is unusual in that while Jews live in many lands, Judaism still keeps itself aware of its deepest roots in the ancient spiritual wisdom and practices of an indigenous people – farmers and shepherds —  in sacred touch with its own land. The codes of kosher food, the festivals aligned to the seasons of Sun, Moon, and Earth — all testify to that.

We call upon the whole Jewish people to uphold this sacred covenant — in the moment of all human history when it is most needed.

If you have already joined or now decide to join in this great effort  — please list yourself twice:

For the March as a whole, please click to:

To take part in the Jewish contingent on the March, please sign on at>1

100 Shofarot for People's Climate March! -- NYC Sept 21

This September, just a few days before Rosh Hashanah, there will be a mammoth People’s Climate March in mid-town Manhattan, on Sunday, Sept. 21.

Imagine 100 shofar-blowers sounding forth the Ram’s Horn of warning and transformation at the head of a Jewish/ Multireligious contingent on the March!

(This graphic, “She Blew the Shofar,”  is by Lynne Feldman. See her work at ). All rights reserved. Published with permission.

Weeks ago, I took part in the first planning session for the March. About 230 people showed up –- from religious groups, labor unions, poverty-action groups, environmentalists, students, elders, health-care activists, and many more.
There was a very strong sense of excitement about both the numbers and diversity of people present, and a sense it will be possible to bring 200,000 people or more into the streets around one demand: “Climate Action Now!”  (Participants may have their own signs, etc. There will be no civil disobedience as part of the March; if groups wish to take such action, they should do so the next day.)
Permit negotiations with the NY Police Department continue. Possible line of march (not yet certain) might be from Lincoln Square to Times Square to Union Square. There will be no “rally” with speakers, etc.
Buses, trains, car-pools, etc from beyond the five boroughs of NYC are welcome!

On Rosh Hashanah, just a few days later (starting Wednesday evening, Sept. 24) there begins not only the new year as it does every year, but a special year –- the biblical seventh year, the Sabbatical Year or Shmita (“release, non-attachment”).
The Shmita/ Sabbatical Year is intended to be a year of healing and freedom for the Earth, annulment of debts, an opening beyond the usual economic and political constrictions of human society —  what might be called eco-social justice. (See Lev. 25 and Deut 15.)
How do we prepare to turn the ancient Shmita of farmers and shepherds toward healing for our wounded Earth today? The March itself is a first step – and it must not stop there. The Shalom Center will go forward with the Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet campaign, and is also planning a Ten City project to inspire and help organize nine more local networks of Jewish climate activists like JCAN, the Jewish Climate Action Network, in Boston.
Through study, through ourselves becoming the Great Shofar of history, we can learn to act together to prevent disaster and instead grow seeds of change into a flourishing world of shared and sustainable sustenance.

The graphic of the Shofar-blower in the fruitful fields symbolizes the Shofar that calls out, “Sleepers, Awake!”
“Awake to protect and heal the Earth!”
“Awake to protect the poor, the hungry, assailed by flood and famine!”
“Awake to heal YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life, as it chokes from the overdose of CO2 burned into our world-wide breath, Earth’s atmosphere!”
So action is needed. Yet clear action, effective action, action deeply rooted in our spiritual selves, requires learning. So please take part in one of these learning opportunities. Learn in the midst of joy!

Preparing for Sinai: Uniting Earth & Heaven, Words and Wheat

From the evening of Tuesday June 3 through the evening of June 5, Jews will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot, which in most of Jewish life today is focused on the revelation and acceptance of Torah at Mount Sinai.

During the next weeks, the Shalom Report will be suggesting ways to enrich what has become a somewhat forlorn festival in the Jewish calendar.

And since Shavuot became transcribed in Christian tradition into Pentecost, perhaps Christians as well as Jews might learn from reexamining this holy day.  (More about Pentecost below.)

The Hebrew word “Shavuot” means “Weeks.”  Its name comes from the festival’s timing in regard to Passover: It comes after a “week of weeks,” seven weeks and one day, beginning on the second night of Passover.

In Biblical Israel, Shavuot was the celebration of a successful spring wheat harvest. For seven weeks, the community anxiously counted its way into the precarious abundance of harvest.  The counting began on Passover as each household brought a sheaf of barley to the Temple, for the barley crop ripened before wheat.

On the 50th day, there was a unique offering at the Temple — two loaves of wheat bread –— regular leavened bread, not unleavened matzah, on the only occasion all year when leavened bread was offered. 

This agricultural celebration of Shavuot fit into the broad pattern of Biblical Judaism. During the Biblical era, spiritual leadership of the People was held by a hereditary priesthood defined by the body from birth and skilled in the body-rituals of bringing various foods  (beef, mutton, matzah, grain, pancakes, fruit) as offerings to a physical place.

Then the People Israel was severed from the land and from its ability to bring earthy offerings of foods of the Land of Israel to the Temple. During the same crisis when the People was deprived of its original, indigenous sacred relationship with the Earth, it was introduced to an alternative form of sacredness. From Hellenistic philosophy, it became clear that adept use of words could make connection with the Divine. And words could be carried from place to place, land to land.

So spiritual leadership was redefined. It was handed to a meritocratic lineage of men skilled in words –- the Rabbis.

In accordance with this profound transformation, the Rabbis redefined Shavuot –— as no longer the celebration of spring wheat, but the anniversary of Revelation of the Word.

Experimenting toward an American Sabbatical/Shmitah Year

Can we turn our Eco-Wisdom
Away  from Climate Doom,
Into a Joyful Future?

Often the climate crisis is described ONLY as approaching doom. As the official US report on the impact of global scorching (just released this week) makes clear, that is one possible result. Yet the Torah portion we read this week (Leviticus 25, called B’Har) makes clear that we could learn to live more joyfully with the rhythms of the Earth.

Our growing ecological science could enrich the Torah’s teachings and help us on the journey toward a more joyful relationship between adam (humanity) and adamah (the Earth).  Could help us turn what the Hebrew words say — that human earthlings and the Earth are intertwined — into a joyful era, rather than disaster.

Indeed, it is our new scientific awareness of how fully all life on Planet Earth is interwoven that warns us of disaster. That same knowledge could make it possible to turn human and planetary history in a more fruitful direction.

The Sabbatical/ Shmita Year – a year in which the Earth and the human community get to rest —  is proclaimed in this week’s Torah portion. That vision is a teaching about how to affirm the economics of making the Earth do our will in order for human life to thrive, with a time of pausing for the earth and human society to catch our breath — and thrive.

If Shmitah is a worthy vision, how do we begin to make it real? Let us start with an “impractical” vision: creating nine-day Shmitah/ Sabbatical Festivals in all our neighborhoods.

All too few are now “neighborly” as the assumptions of compassion have broken down in the face of both the content and the form of the mass media, the defunding of face-to-face education, despair over permanent impoverishment juxtaposed to quick riches from illegal drugs. How do we transform them?

Imagine this “impractical” scenario:  Our government empowers all our neighborhoods to hold a nine-day neighborly Shmitah/ Sabbatical celebration, once a year from Friday through the Sunday  a week later. We the People, acting through our shared government, give seed grants to neighborhood institutions to plan such events. We make the Shmitah Festival a decentralized but universal event, a universal national “Shabbat” on all but life-preserving emergency services.

We close down highways, trains, hotels, television stations, newspapers, along with factories and offices. We rediscover walking and talking, singing and cooking. We rediscover our nearby neighbors.

Healing Mother Earth by drawing on 4 Worlds of Transformative Judaism

We face a planetary crisis. How would Transformative Judaism, drawing on the Four Worlds of Kabbalah, seek to heal our wounded Mother Earth? 

Since human action has endangered the web of life on earth, human action can heal it.

And the religious and spiritual communities of our planet have the wisdoms and the tools to do the healing.


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