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Blessings, Curses, and Hitting the Reset Button

05/15/2020 12:53:16 PM


Shabbat Shalom!

היום שבעה ושלשים יום שהם חמשה שבועות ושני ימים לעומר

Today is 37 days, which is five weeks and two days of the Omer. The kabbalistic realm of this Shabbat is loving-kindness in foundation. Rabbi Amber Powers writes the following kavannah for this day: “Source of all, help me feel rooted and strong. May I face any challenges this day brings grounded in the foundational truth that I am a holy and capable being.”
            This week’s Torah portion is the double portion of Parashat Behar-Behukotai. In the first part of the parasha, Behar, tells of the laws of shemita and Yovel, seven-year cycles in which land gets a Shabbat as well. Every seventh year in the Holy Land, no crops may be planted or harvest, and no ownership of farmlands is acknowledged, but all may eat what grows and falls of its own accord. In the 50th year, after seven cycles, not only is soil given a reset, but so is the whole ancient agrarian economic system. Slaves or indentured servants are freed, debts are forgiven, all land holdings return to the tribes for whom they were assigned so that recent sales and rentals are nullified. This section also lays out the prohibition on usury and interest, and the rules for how one must treat their servants.

            Throughout the parasha, God reminds us again and again that these laws are because the land, the crops, and the people who toil for them, all belong to God. Ancient Israelites may hold deeds and contracts that give them ownership over their farms and servants, but these human trappings are as finite as our lives. What is eternal is God, and the holiness of the Divine-Human-Nature relationships.

            Returning to our Omer Kavannah (another cycle of seven sevens), nurturing plants can help us feel rooted and powerful, able to call forth life from the dirt. But we also know that we are only nurturing what is natural. As a daisy through concrete will prove to us, the natural world doesn’t really need us to cultivate it. We need to cultivate it to strengthen ourselves. And all this is done through the foundational Divinity of the universe.

            Just as this parasha called our ancestors to reset their agrarian economic systems, I believe it too calls us to reset our modern capitalist system. Judaism calls us to protect our whole society, not just those deemed important. Slaves were freed and debts were forgiven, now our next Yovel should see increased social safety nets for those struggling to make ends meet through increased taxes on corporations that exploit labor laws. The land was given rest every seven years to recharge the soil, now our next shemita (which is actually next year) should see serious efforts to reduce our use of fossil fuels and increase our use of clean, renewable energy to recharge our climate. Although these laws according to the Torah only apply in Israel, and Yovel especially can no longer be celebrated as described in the Torah as it requires all twelve of the tribes to be accounted for in their assigned tribal areas of the Holy Land, we as diaspora Jews can still take meaning and apply the lessons to our lives. We can no longer offer animal sacrifices in the Temple, but we learn from the mitzvot surrounding the ancient practices of our ancestors lessons of heartfelt worship and sacrifices of time, money, energy. So may we learn now that sometimes the world needs a reset button to help fix the great injustices in our systems, and may we work to correct them.

            May we find that acts of lovingkindness are foundational to our lives and to our Judaism, and may we stay grounded in moments of great social change.

            In the second section of the parasha, Bechukotai, God tells the People of Israel that if they follow the mitzvot they will be blessed and if they do not follow the mitzvot they will be cursed. Although this sort of direct hands-on sort of God is not a theology most modern Jews hold to, there is a lesson in this parasha that is still deeply resonant.

            If we follow the mitzvot that teach us to not be wasteful, to allow the earth a rest, to respect nature, to treat our cattle humanely, then we as a people will be blessed with abundance, a healthy earth and atmosphere, and a sustainable agricultural system. If we ignore the laws of God and Nature and try to take, take, take without balance we will find we are cursed with land that no longer grows healthy crops, an atmosphere clogged with pollutants, rising water levels but none of it drinkable, and we will run out of our resources.

            If we follow mitzvot that teach us to be fair in business (including global trade and labor laws), to have one set of laws that applies equally to all, to seek blind justice balanced with mercy, to share all that we think we have because really it all belongs to God anyway, then we may be blessed with peace and an equitable society. If we ignore those commandments and justify exploitation and racism, hoard and judge others unfairly, then we may be cursed with broken systems, angry divisions in society, leading to unrest and chaos.

            Of course, doing the right thing is not always directly rewarded and the wicked don’t always see their own punishments. However, as we can only control our own lives and immediate influences, we might as well start there with kindness, freedom, fairness, and ecological stability and watch it ripple out.

            May we always choose blessings over curses, following the lighted path of Torah toward Tikkun Olam, and may we build a culture of sustainable abundance. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781