Behar-Bechukotai: Of Oil Spills and Old Covenants

[Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, May 7, 2010.]

This Shabbat, it seems, is meant to be a Shabbat all about the Earth.

We have a confluence of several factors that make me say that. First we have a double Torah portion this week - Behar and Bechukotai, both having to do with our responsibilities toward the Earth. The second item is that Sunday is Mother's Day, and don't we always say the Earth is our mother? And the third, well, I'll tell you about the third item later.

First, the Torah portions. These are the last two of the book of Leviticus. Behar lays out the rules of the shmitah year, the seventh year in which the fields must be left fallow. The text says:

The land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths - shabbat shabbaton - for the land.

The land deserves a rest. This is remarkable. In the same way that we are granted the holiness of Shabbat every seventh day, the Earth is entitled to take its own sweet Shabbat every seventh year.

While modern commentators have made hay, as it were, of the view that leaving fields fallow is simply sound agricultural practice, nowhere does Torah say that this is the reason for the shmitah year. Instead, it is simply shabbat for the land. It is for the land's sake, not for ours. It is a year in which we may not exert mastery over it. And we, as a by-product, are forced to live a different kind of life. Less ambitious, slower perhaps, a year of some uncertainty, a year without extravagance. A pre-agricultural year, like in the days of Eden. A year where Earth is our companion, not our servant. A year in which we are reminded that the earth deserves -- well, the Earth simply deserves.

It's appealing to me that this portion falls on the eve of Mother's Day. Just a nice little modern coincidence, since we so enjoy articulating the metaphor of Earth as Mother. "Earth as mother" is, of course, an old metaphor, both widespread and apt. Gaia gave birth to us and we owe her the honor we owe our mothers. Kabed it avicha v'et imecha -- "honor your father and your mother," says the Ten Commandments. "Love your Mother," says the bumper sticker.

But I wonder sometimes if the mother-child metaphor is problematic also. We are, after all, not a species that does so well with the mother-honoring business. Maybe if we were another kind of creature - say, the Pando tree of Utah - 47,000 aspen stems flourishing in seeming independence above ground, but growing from one root stock as one enormous and continuous organism.  But no. Instead we belong to a species where children are born of their mothers, are nurtured by them, but then, if we're successful, are compelled to individuate. Differentiating from our parents is our genetic and cultural imperative. In fact we spend much of our adolescence pushing mom away, and sometimes spend the rest of our lives going around and around that internal conflict. No wonder Torah has to command us to honor our parents. If it came naturally, who'd need a commandment?

Maybe this flawed mother-child metaphor in fact describes our relationship with the Earth accurately. She gave us life and yet we feel compelled to push her away. We differentiate. Like eye-rolling teenagers, we don't see the Earth as our mother, but merely as our address.

All of this bubbles up for me this week as we witness the devastation that has been unleashed on the Gulf Coast and take stock of the newest batch of creatures and habitats that we've handed over to oblivion. How could this happen? Certainly not for lack of knowledge of the risks of offshore drilling or any of the other aggressive environment-changing activities carried on in our name.

Perhaps the answer is connected with the third element of our confluence of factors this weekend. This coming Monday, the 27th of Iyar, is the date Torah gives for when Noah and his family and all the animals were finally able to leave the ark. And on that day, God made a brit - a covenant that never again would God destroy all life because of the evil acts of humans. And the rainbow appears as God's signature on the dotted line.

But despite God's promise, aren't we moving toward destruction?Aren't we slowly (or not so slowly) creating a desolation in which, using the language of Bechukotai, the second of this week's twin portions, the skies will be like iron and the land like brass? How can this be happening?

There is a clue, I think, in midrash surrounding the Noah story. Something about human nature. I was visiting a cousin this week who asked me a kind of fun-fact Bible question. He asked me why the people didn't believe Noah when he told them that it would rain until they were destroyed by flood. (After all, according to our sages, Noah took 120 years to build the ark, giving the people around him plenty of time to repent. But they scoffed at him.) My cousin answered the question, saying it was because they had never seen rain, since rain isn't mentioned in Torah before this point. And so they had no reason to believe a cockamamie story about water falling from the sky. This is a revealing insight.

We don't believe in danger that we haven't personally experienced.

We don't even need such an extreme reading of the Noah story to answer to my cousin's riddle. Perhaps they in fact knew rain as well as any of us does; they'd seen it all their lives. But they'd never seen rain kill. And so, once again, they had no reason to believe a dire warning that lay outside of their experience. And when the great rain started, it was undoubtedly just a drizzle.

Like the old chestnut about boiling the frog. If the water heats up slowly enough, the popular wisdom (although perhaps not the science) goes, the frog doesn't react to the change of temperature and doesn't act to save itself. And so with offshore drilling. So with climate change. We know a tremendous amount, both collectively and individually, about the changes taking place in the environment and the dangers they pose. But we, as a culture, don't react. It is gradual - too gradual to kick our adrenaline into gear. If it hasn't killed us yet, why suppose it will? When will we feel instinctively that we must act? And by that time, will we already be poached frog?

My teacher Rabbi David Seidenberg pointed out this week that although God promised not to destroy all life, God never said that we couldn't. Our willingness to let life on Earth unravel is a function of disbelief; a function of the nearly imperceptible pace of climate change; a function of the brevity of our own lives; a function of our ardent and adolescent differentiation from Earth our Mother; and a function of our stubborn, lurking and unfounded belief that there is, somewhere out there, a God who will step in, father-like, and save us from ourselves.

I'm aware that I'm preaching to the choir. But maybe not, because if there is a choir, I'm not in it. I know all these things. I read newspapers. I care. But I don't really do. I have only been affected intellectually. Global warming has not touched my experience. If the price of Gulf of Mexico oysters goes up this year, I can tell you with certainty I will not notice. In the meantime, I have chosen to live in a location where there is no option of public transportation or bicycle transit. I've eliminated many of my own best ways to reduce my carbon footprint. So how do I change? Is there a Jewish understanding we can use to help us step up?

Perhaps there is something in our understanding of God and how God acts in this world. Here, in what the Kabbalists would call Malchut - the kingdom, the majesty, the physical reality in which we live and the only world we can ever really know, God acts, if God acts at all, through us. In Reconstructionist lingo we talk about locating God in our shared impulse to do justice. When we act out of our best impulses, there is God.

But we neglect to mention the flipside. What of our combined worst impulses? Greed, apathy, willing ignorance, closing our eyes to injustice. Alas, God is there too. Not the God who comforts and provides, but the angry God of Bechukotai - the one promising environmental desolation in exchange for our misdeeds. Or the angry God of the Noah story, willing to let human faults justify the destruction of all life.

This is a terrifying thought to me. That we, through our actions, bring about that angry, biblical God, that one that as modern Jews we try so hard to distance ourselves from. It's hard to accept the amount of destructive power we actually wield. To misquote Walt Kelly in his Pogo comic strip written for Earth Day 39 years ago, "We have met the vengeful God, and He is us."

But owning our godliness in this respect also gives me hope. If by our actions we are God - for good and for ill - then we are the ones bound by the brit, bound by the covenant of the rainbow made after the flood. We signed onto an oath, not as the human parties, but as God's proxy. And so there is no loophole for us. No way to say "not me, not us." We have made a covenant with all life: "every living soul - the birds, the cattle and every beast of the earth." And so we are oath-bound to protect the air and the water, to protest exploitation of limited resources, to sing out for sustainability, to rethink, to remediate, to live more simply.

We do not have a choice. We are oath-bound, covenant-bound to do this. We do not do it [merely] out of mother love, honor, or self-interest. We do it out of deep, uncompromising obligation.

And so whenever we have a decision to make that has an impact on this Earth, in our lives or our work or our community institutions, whenever we are deciding whether to speak out on an environmental issue or not, let us stop, take a deep breath, and say the traditional blessing that is recited upon seeing a rainbow:

ברוך אתה יי זוכר הברית

Baruch Atah Yah, zocher habrit.

Blessed are You, Yah, who remembers the Covenant.

And blessed may We be, that we may remember the Covenant.

And blessed will all Existence be when the Covenant is kept.

ברוך אתה יי זוכר הברית

Baruch Atah Yah, zocher habrit.