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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Behar - Speaking for the Land

Updated: Jul 12

While much of the Levitical law focuses on the work of the priests or on the moral code that we must keep between one another, Parashat Behar introduces a new aspect, our relationship with the land. God instructs the Jewish People that once they have entered the Land of Israel they will be required to observe a sabbath for the land every seven years and once every fiftieth year. During these years it will be forbidden to sow, reap, or harvest untrimmed vines. The land is as deserving as all of God’s creations and is granted a much-needed respite from the intervention of human hands. 

I am not an agricultural worker, far from it. Growing up I never felt a great connection to the land surrounding me nor saw it as a source of meaning. Moving to the Land of Israel, it is hard not to develop a deeper appreciation for and connection to the land. There is something about walking the same hills as King David or climbing the slopes of Masada where that small group of Jews made their last stand against the seemingly invincible Roman empire that imbues the very land around you with extra meaning, a feeling that it is a part of you and that you are a part of it. 

While we should of course not look past the human costs of these past difficult months, our Torah portion offers us an opportunity to think also on what is happening to the land, to the natural world around us. As a result of the war, tens of thousands of acres have been turned into nearly human free zones. We saw what effect this absence can have on areas at the peak of Covid: things spring back to life, vegetation and plant-life thrive, animals show up in places they have not been seen in years. 

But not this time. This time these areas have not been entirely abandoned. War has occupied them. Rockets and missiles and drones have rendered them uninhabitable. They have left scars and pockmarks across the face of this beautiful ground in northern Israel and also across the border in southern Lebanon. This damage is only expected to become worse as the hot, dry summer sets in and with it the conditions for wildfires that can spiral quickly out of control. In the event of a full out war, well, the damage would be massive. 

This week’s portion reminds us that, just as the worship of God and our obligation to one another is part of our covenant, so too is a respect for the land upon which we live. The commandment to leave the land fallow once every seven years is a reminder that we do not, we cannot, ever fully own the land. Rather, we are meant to live in some sort of harmony with it. We can tame it, shape it, use it for our purposes but the Torah reminds us that it does not belong entirely to us. 

And, in the midst of a war, the land also pays the price. All of the miraculous sustenance and beauty the land offers us is stolen. Who are we, how arrogant are we as humans that we think we have the right to reap destruction and death upon a miraculous world that allows the miracle of our existence? Behar arrives just on time to remind us of our obligation to the world around us. We have the power to save it from being scorched as another casualty in the wars of man. I pray we use it.

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