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Holiness, Wholeness, and a Healthy Earth

04/23/2021 02:09:39 PM


          “You shall be holy, for I – the Lord Your God – am holy.” Three times this phrase is repeated in the second part of this week’s double Torah portion, Parashat Kedoshim. What does it mean to be holy because or in the way that God is holy? This Shabbat, immediately following Earth day, we find ourselves in the kabbalistic time of Splendor within Persistence on day 26 of the Omer. Poet Susan Windle tells us, “Let us pause here in these perilous times. Notice where we find ourselves. Alive and growing, reaching for life, rooted in eternity. Diverse, manifold. Single in purpose.”

          There may be many things today that feel perilous, many justice issues that require our attention, and this parasha addresses many of them. We learn to pay fair and timely wages and to treat all people with equity, to be fair in business and equal in justice. We learn that Torah is concerned with disability justice and accessibility for those with impairments. We learn that to profit off another’s suffering or to stand idly by while others bleed is to deny that holiness God calls us to throughout the parasha and essentially snuffs out the divine spark within humanity.

          While this parasha is less explicit on issues of environmental justice than it is about interpersonal behavior and less explicit than some other Torah portions may be about the environment, it nonetheless gives us some hints that are useful this Earth Week. The first part of the parasha, Acharei-Mot, describes some of Judaism’s more earth-based rituals, relating to food, land, and animals. In our post-Temple period, our religious rituals have become almost entirely word-based: praying, singing, learning. In our post-Industrial Revolution period, so many of us have lost our connections to the land, our touch with where our food comes from, our value for animal life including in its death. I’m not advocating for a return to animal sacrifice as a form of Jewish worship, but do think more nature-based approaches to Judaism would benefit us all, particularly as climate crisis continues to loom.

          The parasha also gives us more specifics to dictate our relationships to food. Some more specifics of Kashrut are given in this parasha, though last week had a much more intensive list of Kosher and non-Kosher animals. We are told not to pick the fruits or vegetables from a newly planted tree for three years, giving it time to flourish and reseed. In the fourth year, we are to offer the produce as a sacrifice to God, and are only to eat of it ourselves in it’s fifth year. Yet, for those first four years we must still tend to it and work the land for the sake of our future. Not everything in our relationship to nature merits instant gratification. This parasha also tells us not to pick our fields or vineyards bare, but to leave something for the poor to come and take with dignity. This not only teaches us of the importance of social welfare and treating every person with equal dignity regardless of their class status, I also see it as a warning against environmental racism and food deserts. The poor must have access to your excess crops in the first place. They must live in proximity to the lush farmland, in areas safe for agriculture and flourishing organic life. In our world today, communities of color have much greater difficulty accessing fresh produce and are exposed to greater than 50% more pollution than is caused by their consumption on average. It is cheaper for industrial corporations to pollute communities of color than white communities. Indigenous populations make up about 5% of the global population but maintain nearly 80% of the remaining biodiversity on Earth.  To continue to put the burden of our environmental degradation onto marginalized communities is in opposition of this parasha’s call to holiness.

          Colonialism, poor use of land, monoculture, and industrial animal agriculture are destroying our Earth. We’ve already created so much damage to water, air, and soil, as well as to marginalized communities. The Torah tells us that if we defile the land, it will spew us out (Lev. 18:25). In its textual and historical context, the Torah is talking about a spiritual defilement caused by illicit relationships and it is referring specifically to the Holy Land, but I think the warning serves us well on any continent and with regard to any defilement. If we do not care for the land, it will cease to provide its nutrients for us.

          One of the first commandments God gives human beings in the whole of the Torah is to care for the Earth. We as humanity are failing at this most basic rule of life. We as Jews are violating so many of the later commandments toward equality and justice in the ways that we do address or not address environmental destruction. This Shabbat, this Earth Weekend, let us take the advice of Interfaith Power and Light’s Omer Calendar for this day and “Be like a tree planted by the water [Psalm 1:3]; grounded in nature and connected with those you love.” By reconnecting with nature in a loving and spiritually rejuvenating way, we better prepare ourselves to clean up our Earth, change course on our climate, and better distribute the responsibility and consequences of the human affect on nature. May we embody the tree of life, rooted in the soil of love and justice and reaching for holiness and peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sun, September 26 2021 20 Tishrei 5782