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Two Minutes of Torah: Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:30-46) - Our Planet needs a Rest

Growing up in RSY-Netzer we would often have programmes and sessions relating to the subject of the environment, and our role in protecting and caring for it. On these occasions a text from Greenpeace became very popular as an educational trigger. Rather than thinking of the world as 4,600 million year old, we were asked to consider our planet as if it was a person of 46 years of age. We know nothing of the first seven years of this person’s life; while dinosaurs and the great reptiles only appeared one year ago, when the planet was already 45.

‘Mammals arrived only 8 months ago and in the middle of last week. Man-like apes evolved into ape-like men and at the weekend the last ice-age enveloped the earth. Modern man has been around for four hours. During the last hour man discovered agriculture, the industrial revolution began a minute ago and during those 60 seconds of biological time modern man has made a rubbish tip of paradise.’

The Greenpeace text always made for uncomfortable reading, and challenged us to consider our actions in this world, and the way in which it might impact on our environment. When we fill up our car with petrol, when we switch on the lights at home, when we turn up the heat we rarely think about the consequences to the natural world, we think about our own needs. Our behaviour is legitimate and understandable, but at the same time Greenpeace challenges us to consider the impact of our actions.

This week’s Torah portion begins in the midst of a gruesome account of what will happen to us if we disobey God’s commandments. As it states: ‘I will act against you in wrathful hostility; I, for My part, will discipline you sevenfold for your sins’ (Leviticus 26:28). As part of this punishment the land is to be laid desolate, the cities shall be ruined and the people will be scattered across the world (Leviticus 26:33).

And while we are suffering, the land will receive much needed sustenance: ‘Then shall the land make up for its Sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its Sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in the Sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it’ (Leviticus 26:34-35).

The text does not tell us that we are punished for neglecting the Sabbatical year, we are simply told the consequences if ‘you do not obey Me’ (Leviticus 26:18). However, it seems that there is an expectation that if we are breaking God’s laws, then this would include the commandment for the land to rest every seven years. While we are punished, the land will be allowed to rest and flourish, without our intervention.

It is painful to admit that our current stewardship of this planet has not been as successful and as nurturing as we might have hoped. We could argue about the extent to which we have made a ‘rubbish tip of paradise’, but the sentiment appears to be justified. The Sabbatical year was a safeguard amongst God’s commandments, a way of protecting the environment, and curtailing our abuse at least once every seven years.

While I doubt a Sabbatical year is enforceable today, it is clear that the world could do with some help. As the Greenpeace text tells us, if the world is 46 years old, then ‘a human life in this timespan lasts a mere 18 seconds. Let’s not waste anymore precious time’. With this small amount of time at our disposal, we cannot wait for a Sabbatical year, and with Hillel’s words we should be inspired to act for ‘if not now, when?’

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Rabbi Danny
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