In Parashat Acharei Mot, we read:
"You must keep My laws and My rules, you must not do any of those abhorrent things, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you; for all those abhorrent things were done by the people who were in the land before and the land became defiled. So let not the land vomit you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you." (Lev. 18:26-28).
There are many elements that mark the spiritual mindset. Biblically, it is a perception of connection: divinity to humanity, cause to effect, blessing to virtue, and struggle to sin. Much of this ancient lens runs counter to modernity, in which humanity is seen as separate from beast and earth. In Torah, we see rain as relationship, an earth woven with ethic. Blessing is felt through pastoral plentitude, punishment through agricultural atrophy. The priestly precision of Leviticus imagines an ecology in which human morality determines terrestrial harmony. In Parashat Acharei Mot, we are deluged again with detail, ranging from priestly rites to sexual ethics, unified in conveying the sense that such laws guide us towards cosmic harmony.
Just as any being, when faced with disease and the invasion of something incompatible, will vomit out the offensive element, so too will the Land. For Leviticus, divine law is natural law: in adhering to one, the other is fulfilled. Conversely, violation of such law results in a punishment of both deity and dirt.
For some, we read such stricture as irrelevant or offensive; for others, we may see them as reflections of a worldview both primitive and simplistic. Today, few see the rise and fall of nations as a reflection of ritual accuracy or natural disaster as correlated to carnal choices. But the mindset of a perception of connection is one that we return to in a 21st-century definition of ecology. We are now aware of the immense complexities of our ecosystem: polar melts link to a polar vortex, hurricanes lead to migratory shifts that alter crop fertility. We are, more than ever in modernity, aware of our human impact on a global scale, and conscious of a connectedness to which we are subject.
Many of our early Sages, though living in an era without Temple or priestly performance, maintained this biblical ecology. In a midrash on Creation, we read:
"Look at God's work – for who can straighten what He has twisted?" (Kohelet 7:13). When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you." (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)
The state of earth and environment is a reflection of human ethic; so too, our treatment and stewardship of the world mean to mirror the height of humanity. The concept is further expanded in the Babylonian Talmud not only to any wanton destruction (Kiddushin 32a), but also to any kind of waste (B’rachot 52b) and even to over-ostentation and over- indulgence (Chulin 7b; Shabbat 140b).
For many of the Chasidic masters, this same spiritual ecology also invites nature as a door to divinity. The late 18th-century rabbi, Nachman of Bratzlav, went so far as to believe that communing in nature was a necessary element of religious devotion. He wrote this prayer:
“Master of the universe, grant me the ability to be alone; that it may be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and the grass, among all growing things and there may I be alone to enter into prayer, to talk with the One I belong to. May I express everything in my heart and may all the foliage of the field – all grasses, trees and plants – may they all awake at my coming, to send the power of their life into the words of my prayer, so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of growing things, which are made as one by their transcendent Source. May they all be gathered into my prayer and thus may I be worthy to open my heart fully in prayer, supplication and holy speech.” (The Empty Chair [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights,1996], p. 86)
More than any other offering, perhaps our priestly precursors gift us today with the very mindset necessary for our own collective survival. In an age in which we see the collapse of ecosystems and rapid changes to climate and sea level, we are already seeing lands casting out their inhabitants. Rather than assuming such fates are both disconnected and beyond us, we inherit a spiritual tradition urging us towards a perception of connection. Such a frame offers a new ethic with ancient roots, one that invites us to see our each and every choice as woven into the very soil beneath us. Perhaps it is time to ditch the dialectic of disconnected dominion given by God in Eden (Gen. 1:26-28), and instead set our sights as global gardeners.
The medieval English anchoress, mystic, and author, Julian of Norwich, writes:
Be a gardener.
Dig a ditch
toil and sweat,
and turn the earth upside down
and seek deepness
and water the plants in time.
Continue this labor
and make sweet floods to run
and noble and abundant fruits to spring.
Take this food and drink
and carry it to God
as your true worship.
(Julian of Norwich)
Rabbi Ben Spratt is the senior associate rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY. His passion continues to be building community beyond existent walls and boundaries and, in partnership with many others, has sparked Shireinu, Tribe, New Day Fellowship, and Minyan.