Celebrating the Spiritual Levels of Torah

Weekly Torah Portion: Behar-Bechukotai
(Leviticus 25:1 -27:34)

Week of May 10 - 16, 2015

An ecology of the earth

There are, in Torah, no corporations treated as people, but the land itself is treated as part of the One Being. People and the earth are always connected, so the earth, too, is to observe Shabbat.

Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Eternal. (25:2)

Just as human beings require time to rest, to observe a time marked by, "You have done enough this week!" so, too, the land. Every seven years, the land is given a rest from being plowed, planted, and plucked. The land has its own Shabbat.

Did those ancients recognize the physical as well as the spiritual necessity of such a Shabbat? If so, it is an old lesson that is too often ignored in our own time, when we strive simply to chemically induce the land to produce ever-greater yield.

But the most radical Shabbat was the institution known as the Jubilee, marking the 50th year of a cycle by the return of all property, particularly land, to its original owners. The year following the seventh cycle of seven was dedicated to restoring property and persons.

And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family. (25:10)

Whether the Jubilee could continue as the culture moved from an agricultural base to city based communities does not detract from the essential connection such an observance signified. We are connected to the earth. We are adam, humankind, part of adamah, the physical ground of our being.

An ecology of the person

In our day, we seem to prefer to imprison those who are unable to meet their financial obligations, particularly the fines imposed by courts when punishing those who are homeless, and sleeping where they are prohibited to sleep. Torah instructs us with greater compassion to find ways to support those who have become poor. They are to be treated as a hired worker, and are not to be punished by enslavement.

And if your brother who dwells by you becomes poor, and is sold to you; you shall not compel him to serve as a slave; but as a hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with you, and shall serve you to the year of jubilee; (25:39, 40)

Ultimately, we are all servants of the Most High. We are meant to act in ways that honor the part of reality entrusted to us — the persons, the property, and the land with which we live.

For they are my servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. (25:42)

An ecology of reward and punishment?

If person and planet are connected, then what about our actions? Certainly, the planet is either benefited or damaged by our activities, and we are impacted both positively and negatively by the sometimes shifting ground beneath our feet. But does the larger universe respond to the moral and ethical actions we take in our dealings with each other? And, does the universe respond to our observance, or lack thereof, regarding religious imperatives?

According to this parashah, there are rewards and punishments awaiting us depending on whether or not we follow the commandments we have been given.

You shall make no idols nor graven image, nor erect a pillar, nor shall you set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down to it; for I am the Eternal your God. You shall keep my sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary; I am the Eternal. If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. (26:1 - 4)

Not only are we told that the natural world will respond to our performance of religious obligations, but we will achieve those most sought after qualities of life: peace and safety from both human and animal enemies.

And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will remove evil beasts from the land, nor shall the sword go through your land. (26:6)

Of course, if there are rewards for fulfilling those commandments, there must also be punishments in store for those who do not follow them.

But if you will not listen to me, and will not do all these commandments; and if you shall despise my statutes, or if your soul loathes my judgments, so that you will not do all my commandments, but that you break my covenant; I also will do this to you; I will appoint over you terror, consumption, and fever, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart; and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. (26:14 - 16)

The list of terrors that await disobedience is extensive. The land will no longer bring forth food. We will besieged by enemies and routed from our land. Nothing we do will succeed, and we will be diminished as persons and as a People.

While we can understand that such threats might be designed to inspire adherence to community standards, it is challenging to believe that there is a Deity who rewards and punishes in these ways. From our standpoint, such a God who rewards and punishes seems a projection of our own ego consciousness onto the universe. Reward and punishment, as motivations for proper thought and action, are ego functions, reflections of the way we teach our children before they are ready to better understand and to make their own choices and decisions.

If there were a God who could respond to human actions in this way, that God would have stopped the Shoah, the Holocaust, long before six million of us were murdered. That God would prevent natural disasters that claim thousands of innocents across the planet.

In some ways, we might wish such a system of clear rewards and punishments operated in our world, but that would render us always children, never growing to take responsibility for our own life choices. The process of evolution would be eclipsed by the need to adhere to unchanging rules and regulations.

An externalization of an inner reality

So what are we to make of such passages? Like many other places in this spiritual text, we need to appreciate the deeper levels from which the words speak. On a surface level, this is a description of an ego-motivated god, perhaps the view of the majority of what were then called the Children of Israel. On a more general level, the text teaches that there are consequences of our behaviors — the very characteristic that marks true freedom. We are only free when our actions have consequences, and the text clearly marks this required characteristic of our freedom.

Probing more deeply, we honor the text as it portrays an externalization of an inner reality. The rewards and the punishments are internal realities that accompany our level of consciousness.

The greatest peace and joy in life come when we know ourselves to be connected in meaningful and purposeful ways to the whole of Life. Idolatry, as an inner reality, is the awareness of disconnection, of aimlessness, of uncertainty, and unclarity. There need be no external authority delivering the rewards and punishments, since both are simply aspects of the activities themselves. It's the way Life works.

The extravagant rewards pictured in the ancient text are inner realities, quite as real as their negative counterparts. When consciousness opens in loving and compassionate ways, it is "rewarded" with the consciousness of love and compassion. When our focus is on the negative, we are also rewarded, although those rewards feel more like punishments.

What is reassuring is the final statement of reconciliation.

And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, nor will I loathe them, to destroy them utterly, and to break my covenant with them; for I am the Eternal One their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God; I am the Eternal. (26:44 - 45)

No matter how far we drift, we are always held in the Presence of Life. At any time, and perhaps, most likely, at the worst of times, it is possible to return to the true nature of our being, and to the true nature of Eternal Being, from which we are only separated by our own beliefs.

Focus Phrases

I consciously act to care for this precious planet.
I act with kindness always.
I celebrate my connection to all Life.

Writing Prompts

The ecological issue I commit myself to supporting now is. . .
I know I tend to act unkindly when. . .
I feel disconnected from others most when. . .

“Torah is the book with no end, supporting our understanding of what it means to be a vehicle for the Spirit of Creation.”

Photo: Mark Reden