Thursday, May 2, 2013

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai: Shmittah Year and Rainbow Day

            Next week is Rainbow Day. I imagine most of you, like myself, did not know this was a thing. Rainbow Day is a time to celebrate the diversity of life on Earth, and to remember our role in God’s covenant. It is a time to remember that the first covenant was not with human beings but with all living things, a chance to reflect on the deep spiritual and religious meaning of diversity, creation, and our role as part of creation and partners with God. This is a special time in human civilization when we need to reflect on the rainbow covenant and our place in sustaining a world where “sowing and reaping, cold and hot, summer and winter will not cease,” except perhaps the sowing and reaping will cease every seventh year, as is commanded in this week’s Torah portion. Rainbow Day is always the 42nd day of the Omer, the day after Yom Yerushalayim. This year, Rainbow Day will begin Monday night and continue onto Tuesday until sunset. It commemorates when Noah, his family, and all the animals that were with them left the ark, on the 27th day of the second month. Exactly one lunar year and ten days before—one complete solar year—the flood began on the 17th of the second month, the day before Lag B’Omer. When Noah and his entourage went out from the ark, God made a covenant, with the people and with all the animals, that there would never be again be a flood of water to destroy life on Earth.
            But just because God promised not to destroy life on Earth, doesn’t mean all humans are committed to the same thing. Both Rainbow Day and Parashat Bahar have a lot to teach us about environmental stability and how we can do our part to stop destruction of life on Earth as well. In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are commanded to let their lands lie fallow every seven years. Although they don’t have lands yet, as they are still wandering the desert at this point, G-d is reminding them that in the future, they will enter the land of Israel, claim plots, plant farms, and till their own soil. But every seven years, they must stop tilling. They don’t plant, tend, or harvest the farms. What continues to grow of its own accord must be allowed to grow wildly, and fruits will be allowed to fall to the ground. Elsewhere, the Torah commands that people leave the corners of their fields unharvested so that the poor can come and eat without having to ask for charity, which damages their pride. But here, the Torah commands that on the seventh year, everyone, poor and wealthy alike, will eat right off the field, from any part of the field. The landowners do not harvest and sell, and the poor may eat of the best fruits, not just what is left in the corners. Further, animals, both domestic and wild, are allowed to come and eat from the fields on these seven days. It is a Shabbat for farmlands, but it is also a prehistoric environmental practice. Overworking the fields dries out soil and makes it so nothing will grow. By leaving the land alone every seven years, the soil is able to refresh itself. By letting fruits fall right off the trees, vines, and bushes, the soil is getting all natural compost for itself.
            After seven times of these seven year cycles, the 49th year, there is a big jubilee. Land that is rented reverts back to the owners, debts are forgiven, and servants are set free. Again, although the Torah presents this as a Shabbat of Shabbat, and a great rest and relief for everyone, it is also important to note its revolutionary social justice consequences. By instituting a reprieve every 49 years, it would be impossible for any family to fall too far into debt that it could never get out, or any family to gain such wealth off the misfortune of others. It ensures that nobody is ever enslaved for life, and that in the end, we are all equal, because after all, we are all children of God, and everything we have really belongs to God.
            However, we don’t currently hold such a practice. We live in a society where people do own land and work it continually, without stopping every seven years to rest it. There is not a reprieve every 49 years, and some people do amass ridiculous amounts of wealth, while others fall deeper and deeper into debt. Although servitude and slavery is not legal in our society in America, we do support other societies that allow it, as much of our stuff – iPhones and Nike shoes and many other products – are made at the hands of labor practices we would never allow in the US. But by buying such products, are we really disallowing it (and I admit that I myself would be probably lost without my own iPhone!)? And lastly, despite all our own strides toward social justice in the U.S., besides issues of wealth, not all families are treated equally here. Although Rainbow Day is about the rainbow in the story of Noah, and connected to environmental sustainability, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that in today’s society, to many people, the rainbow is also a symbol of gay pride. Can we talk about Rainbow Day and social and environmental justice without acknowledging that, while we live in a state with marriage equality, our federal government is still as backwards in its view of LGBT rights as it is in its ability to address the issues of class equality and food distribution?
            Living outside the land of Israel, we are not required to observe a Shmittah year – that seventh year of rest for the land – nor are we bound to the jubilee year. Those commandments are seen as specific to the Holy Land. However, as Jews, we are required to work toward a world where the Earth is treated well, where everyone has equal access to healthy fresh food, where financial imbalance is not allowed to get so out of control, and where all of humanity is seen and treated as equals. That’s a lot of work to be done, and as Rabbi Tarfon taught in Pirke Avot, “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to withdraw from it.” May we all make steps toward repair the world, and perhaps even see pieces of the task finished in our own lifetimes. Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and happy Rainbow Day! 

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