On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Do You Really Care? Bechukotai Behar

How much do you care about the environment? Yourself? Other people? Rabbi Rick Jacobs talks about our fundamental responsibility to care for God’s earth and attend to the neediest among us. It’s not a newfangled, 21st-century idea; it’s literally what our age-old biblical text calls for. So how do we do it? (This episode originally aired in May 2017.)

Three Ways to Listen:


[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. But for the first time in four years, this podcast is going to go on a little bit of a hiatus as we work on some new and exciting ideas for its future.

But in the meantime, we are re-airing some of the best episodes of years past. Our greatest hits, if you will. This week, we'll hear Rabbi Jacobs teaching us about the parshyiot of Behar and Bechukotai from May 15th, 2017, when he asked us what it meant to really be responsible to the earth.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on two parshyiot, the last two portions of the Book of Leviticus. Behar and Bechukotai. I'm going to take the opportunity today to focus only on the first of those parshyiot, Behar. It literally means on the mountain.

And in chapter 25 of the Book of Leviticus, we have for anyone who doubts that Judaism includes social justice, environmental justice, we have a chapter that just sings forth that we have fundamental responsibilities to care for God's earth, and to be most attentive to the neediest among us. That's not some newfangled 21st century idea. That's in the very Biblical text.

So you know that the opening phrases, which really say that you're going to work for six years-- not six days, which of course is the Sabbath of weeks, but we're taught in the opening of chapter 25, the Sabbath of years.

And we're supposed to plant our crops and raise them and care for them. But in the seventh year, that's Shabbat. That's a year to not only not plant and not work the land, but a year for us to study and to regenerate, and very importantly, to particularly care for the poor and those who may live off of that which simply grows during that year automatically, or in the natural course of things.

I wanted to just think for a moment about some of the rules that are actually really hard to follow. But first of all, the rule about the sabbatical year only applies to the land of Israel. You could be a farmer in Iowa or Berkeley or the Berkshires. It officially doesn't count.

But of course, we are at a moment where we're taking not only ownership, but we're empowered by Biblical teachings, and we're seeing a proliferation of people around the entire Jewish world taking the teachings of environmental justice and saying, you know what, that's critical no matter where we live. So though it's specifically commanded for those who live on the land in Israel, it's for all of us.

And I kept thinking back to the time back in 1976 when I was a volunteer on a kibbutz in the north of Israel, near Beit She'an. And I was going through a lot of exploration. I thought, you know what, I'm going to go to an orthodox kibbutz. I'm going to just see what they do. How do they work the land. How do they follow the Biblical laws when taking care of the crops.

And it was a pretty inspiring experience. They kind of, as being a novice from the suburbs, they didn't know quite where to put me. So they fit me for a while in the vineyard. I'm making sure to prune the grapes that were being raised.

But I do remember asking the questions of when the sabbatical year comes, what do they do. And in Israel, in the Biblical land of Israel, it's a real dilemma for kibbutzim, for the agricultural settlements that want to observe the Biblical teachings. It's almost impossible to do that responsibly as farmers and as observant Jews.

So they tried very much to care for the poor during that sabbatical year. And there are, I would call them, work arounds, like selling the land to non-Jews. And then they're able to harvest that. That agrees with some people's views, but not all. So I was left with a lot of questions about how do we actually try to live these Biblical teachings. To do it literally, you can't.

So we have a whole set of traditions that bring them alive. But I have to say, I also was pretty amazed at-- I had one of my jobs was I actually had to pack live fish into crates. I don't know if any of you remember seeing the Lucille Ball Show, but it was just, it's first of all impossible to do.

But to be kosher, and this is an orthodox kibbutz, you had to ship the fish live. So they were jumping all around. And the kibbutz members would come in to watch people like me try to do this impossible task. So as we placed the fish into the crate, they'd just jump out, and then you chase them and you put them back in, and they jump out.

So besides being a source of entertainment on the kibbutz, it taught me to really respect the people who not just work the land, but also really try to live the core teachings of the Jewish tradition. What was amazing about that year is I came to learn about a man named AD Gordon, who I actually went on to write my rabbinic thesis about, who at age 48 left Russia because he wanted to work the land.

And amazingly, he had never worked in the fields at all. So he got there. He was probably 30 years older than everyone else who was working the fields in the north. And he had this unique spirit. And he believed that actually putting his hands on the earth was part of his spiritual practice.

He had been very observant in Russia. But he wanted to be more creative in living on the land. So he felt this life that came literally from the earth into his hands as he planted, as he harvested, as he danced with all the young kibbutzniks. And he actually taught all of us about the power of renewed connection to earth and community.

He was a vegetarian. He was a pacifist. But he was so principled. Even on the kibbutz, you know, they wanted to have a special table for vegetarians. He says, I don't like that. I want to just be with the people. So in thinking about AD Gordon, I reflect on all the people I grew up with, almost none of whom worked the land. The land being in New York and California.

And the idea that we could at some age say, you know what, I want to shift, I want to change, I want to be more connected to the cycles of the earth. I want to be more respectful to the earth. And AD Gordon is such an inspiring example.

He also is the inspired example of how do you find and build community. You can do it in the most powerful ways. And he was somebody who didn't fit into any of the neat little boxes of Jewish life. And he helped reimagine what Judaism was, how he understood God, and what it might be to live a life of Jewish purpose and depth.

So as you think about parshiyot Behar, and you think, you know, I live in a city. What am I going to do? Well, there are all these wonderful urban gardens that we can be a part of. We can begin to raise our own food. We can be part of a co-operative. We can at least be in tune with the cycles and the shifts of the natural world. And we can also help care for this earth.

And I know we have footballs being thrown around our elected officials about whether this is real, some of the changes that we're doing that abuse the earth, whether it's climate change, whether it's some of the irreparable harm that we do to the earth. It means as a person of faith, as a person it takes these traditions seriously, that we actually live differently. And we try to get our society to be more respectful and responsible.

And maybe it starts by planting something and caring and watching the cycles of that one plant, or maybe that one crop. But I just think parshyiot Behar is not just about the Biblical text. It's about the unfolding of a new way to live those texts. You want to do it literally. You can't. If you're ultra-Orthodox, you can't. If you're modern Orthodox, you can't. If you're reform, you're secular.

So it's on us. And the last thought is just such a beautiful reminder of what actually this text is all about, because in chapter 25, we have the phrase that tells us that we're to care for those who are strangers on the planet. But then in chapter 25, the text reminds us that you and I, we are gerim. We are we are simply sojourners.

What a powerful teaching. We're talking about refugees. We're talking about immigrants. We're talking about all these people. Who are those people? Chapter 25 says it's you, it's me. So in that sense of recovering some of the vulnerability about our place in the earth, where to care for one another, or to care for the most vulnerable.

And we are always, always trying to live teachings that aren't so simple. They're not so obvious. But they change us and they can change our community and they can change everything.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitraot.