Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

Torah Reading for Week of May 13-19, 2012


“A Winter Without Snow: What’s G-d Got to Do with It?”
By Rabbi Meredith Cahn, ‘11


It didn’t snow much this winter in the Sierra, where I live now. This week, the Tahoe Weather Geek shared the final snowpack report for this winter: only 40% of normal fell in the Sierra. People all over the mountains are suffering economic hardship; unemployment, bankruptcy and hunger. Indeed, our local food bank is serving twice the number of people this year as last year, when the snow fell in abundance and the tourists arrived in droves. Elsewhere in California, predictions of drought are causing much quaking in boots, for good reason.

With this in mind, it’s hard not to think about the opening verses in Bechukotai, the second of this week’s double torah portions:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. (Leviticus 26:3-5)

These verses commence five blessings and curses that are echoed later in Deuteronomy 11:13-15, the verses we internalize as the second paragraph after the Sh’ma. Jacob Milgrom writes in his commentary of Leviticus that these blessings or curses, including our expulsion from the Land, would come as a result of our not resting the land during its Sabbatical and Jubilee years. If the curse comes, it will be because we will have broken covenant with G-d, but we will have also broken covenant with the land itself, and by doing so, been exiled.

Should we think that the lack of snow—and the ensuing economic catastrophe—result from our breaking the covenant and G-d’s punishment/curse for not treating the land well; for not recognizing that the earth does not belong to us and we have to treat it well?

Many people reject that idea out of hand, because their image of the Divine does not act in such a way, in such a tit for tat manner. But what if this possible effect of climate change is indeed a product of our abandoning our task of stewardship, our turning to the gods of greed and comfort? What if the choices we have made are coming home to roost, and we will be paying the price for generations to come, for as many generations as we did not give the land its Sabbatical and Jubilee rests?

Our behavior matters in the life of the planet, and Bechukotai catalogs an ancient version of the potential blessings and curses for living up to our end of the covenant. When we lose sight of our responsibilities for more than the bottom line, we risk everything. As Wallace Stegner writes,

Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence.”

May we preserve those remnants. Shabbat shalom.

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