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Torah, Pandemic and the Environment #627

05/15/2020 06:00:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Torah, Pandemic and the Environment

Probably one of the most important, yet overlooked, lines in the entire Torah appears in its early chapters.

The Torah instructs us about the environment.

Over the years, with all of the discussion in Genesis about whether God created the earth in six days, or whether the world evolved over time, we have tended to gloss over God's instructions to humanity — to protect and guard the earth.

The Torah tells us that, "The Lord God took humanity and placed it in the Garden of Eden to work it and watch over it." (Genesis 2:15).

How are we doing so far?

While our rabbis and other scholars have explored the Torah and its complex pathways for centuries, only recently have many begun to focus on some of the Torah's environmental messages.

And one of those messages introduces this week's Torah reading, B'har-Bechukotai ("The Lord spoke to Moses of Mount Sinai.")

God tells Moses that just as humanity must observe a weekly day of rest, the same dignity shall be afforded to the land.

So, God declares a Shabbat for the earth.

Specifically, God instructs the Israelites that "the land shall observe a Sabbath of complete rest" every seven years. (Leviticus 25:4)

During that seventh year, there shall be no planting, sowing or harvesting. Food shall be stored from the sixth year, or procured through the wilds, or by other means.

So what is the Torah trying to teach us?

Earlier in my career, Patte and I worked for a number of hospitals based in Camrose, Alberta, about an hour southeast of Edmonton. Each morning, on our drive to work, nature put on a glorious show, as the sun rose over dew dipped fields of wheat and canola.

But one day, on the way to work, we noticed only stalks and stubble covering one large field. At one point, we stopped along the side of the road, and asked the local farmer, "Where are your crops?"

And he answered. "Every seventh year, we give the earth a rest. And when we give the land a break, nutrients are restored. Better to lose one year, so that we have many more plentiful ones in the future."

And I thought to myself, "This is the Torah at work."

How interesting it is that as we endure the current pandemic, with all of the grief, pain and anxiety it has produced, there has been one small beam of light.

The earth is coming back to life.

Indeed, researchers around the world have noticed a drop in air pollution levels of up to 30 percent due to fewer cars on the road, and greenhouse gases have been significantly reduced as factories remain closed. Wildlife is returning to many areas.

"We are seeing in some places, the best air quality in decades," noted the policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, adding that this could lead to cleaner air in the long term.

The same goes for the number of pollutants entering our water system or soiling the earth.

In some ways, while humanity has done a poor job in "working and watching" the planet, the pandemic amidst all of the pain it has inflicted, is reversing much of humanity's abuse.

The earth is a living thing. As we create life, so does the earth. As we watch our offspring grow, so does the land.

I recall while visiting the mystical Israeli city of Sefad many years ago, discussing this very portion with a Kabbalist artist, who over the years, has become a good friend.

He noted that according to the Kabbalah, six worlds preceded this one — and the earth that we currently inhabit will be the last. Therefore, he said, quoting Genesis, "we must not only work it, but watch over it as well."

The current Covid crisis is reshaping and redefining so much of our lives. Once it has subsided, can you see us returning to the way we were?

There have been other times in our history — during gas shortages and economic slowdowns — where there have been fewer pollutants in the environment. But almost always — after the crisis — it isn't long before old practices return.

Now, as with all things during the pandemic, amidst the hardship it has caused, we have an opportunity to develop better habits. 

Perhaps we can walk more and drive less. Perhaps we can waste less and re-use more. Indeed, each of us has a renewed respect for the value of paper products.

"Of course people should be observing physical distancing and breathe the fresh air," one scientist recently noted. "Look at how beautiful parks and cities and rural areas can be when the air is so clean. Remember that."

The Torah gives us a reminder in this week's Parashah, that just as we protect our family, so should we also watch over the environment.

As the Etz Chaim Bible commentary notes, "The holy land, like the holy people who will inhabit it, needs a Shabbat to replenish itself and bear witness to God's ownership of it."

Earlier in my career, a First Nations chief once questioned me, "How is it possible that 'European society' can believe it can own land. Land cannot be owned by man."

And then he shared with me a phrase that has remained with me for 30 years.

"We do not inherit the land from our ancestors — we borrow it from our children."

In our isolation, during these challenging times, let us remember to bless and respect the earth — which, as we have recently been witnessing, has always  forgiven us.

But there will come a time when forgiveness will not be enough.

Therefore, let us remember one of God's earliest commandments, to not only take from the earth, but to take care of it as well.

Let us remember this sacred lesson once things return to "normal."  What a beautiful world this is.

Let us never forget that the earth needs a rest too. 

Shabbat Shalom, v'kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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