Behar 5770

Posted on March 23, 2011

by Scott Greenberg

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico exploded, setting off a massive oil spill that has been going on for over a fortnight. Thousands of barrels of oil spill into the gulf every day, threatening coastlines from SWUSY to Hanegev and the ecological balance of the Gulf. An ecological tragedy of this scale is incomprehensible to many of us – how do we make sense of the incredible damage that continues to be done?

This Shabbat, we read a double parasha: B’har-B’khukotai. For reasons involving the Jewish calendar, we combine the two parshiot together in our Torah reading. One topic that Parashat B’har deals with is the Sh’mittah. The Torah describes how, just as we Jews take one day out of seven each week to rest and not labor, the physical land also needs to rest, one year out of seven. How does land rest? One year out of seven, the Jewish people refrain from agriculture and working the land. This creates something called the Sh’mittah cycle, a seven-year rotation for the land. (By the way, the laws of Sh’mittah are only followed in the land of Israel).

In the second parasha we read this week, B’khukotai, there is a section called the tokheka, in which God describes all of the punishments that will befall the Israelites if they break his commandments. Some of it is very gruesome; you can look up the details at But one verse in the tokhekha connects Parashat B’khukotai to Parashat B’har before it. The Torah has just described how the Israelite people would be exiled to another land, when Vayikra 26:34 says, “Then shall the land be paid her sabbaths, as long as it lies desolate, and you are in your enemies’ land; even then shall the land rest, and repay her sabbaths.”

This verse is pretty deep: it says that if and when the Israelites are exiled, then the land of Israel will “repay her sabbaths.” This is basically implying that one of the sins that Israel will be exiled for will be not letting the land rest during the Sh’mittah year. Then, once they are exiled, the land of Israel will have time to make up for all the Sh’mittah years that were ignored. The Torah is thus making the point that the land will rest, no matter what happens, but the Israelites have a choice – to let it rest during the Sh’mittah year, or to be exiled so that it rests. It’s like a parent who tells their teenager that if they don’t come home by a certain time each night, they’ll be grounded. The teenager is spending time at home no matter what – but they get to choose whether it will be at the right time at night, or whether it will be during weekends and afternoons.

The concept that the earth needs rest is pretty profound. Both Parashat B’har, in a positive way, and Parashat B’khukotai, in a negative way, drive home the point that the physical land cannot be overworked. In the modern age, science has proven what the Torah knew long ago – why farmers in the Middle Ages learned to rotate their crops to keep nutrients in the soil, or why the Dust Bowl of the 1930s drove so many Oklahoman farmers off their land – because we cannot continue to strip the earth of its resources year after year. It’s as if the earth spits us out when it has had too much of us, why the Jewish people were exiled to Assyria and Babylon in Biblical times.

So how do we make sense of the recent oilrig explosion? The Gulf of Mexico certainly doesn’t need to rest every seven years! No, I think that the Torah tries to teach us an eternal truth: that humans and nature don’t always mix well, and if we are not conscious of nature’s limits, than nature will make us conscious. Perhaps it has …