Who Does the Land Belong To?

B'har affirms that the land belongs to God, and the land must be permitted to observe its Sabbaths, too.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

In Parashat B’har, God declares to Moses that the land is a sacred trust and commands the people to observe periods of comprehensive release. This parashah invites us to consider how, in each generation, we can best serve as guarantors of this trust, respect the duty to rest ourselves and our natural resources, and experience “release.” The legislation in B’har presumes the value of balance and regulates a balance among productivity, rest, and relinquishment. 

Inasmuch as punctuating productivity with long pauses lends perspective to life and encourages us to Torah Women's Commentaryexpress gratitude for the earth’s bounty, we may wonder what regulations we require today to help us nurture ourselves, one another, and the planet. As women join men in leadership positions and in the work force, it is becoming a Jewish communal priority to effect social and institutional adjustments that allow for a healthy balance between people’s needs and obligations.

B’har affirms that the land belongs to God, and it must be permitted to observe its Sabbaths. The sensibility that the Land of Israel has a responsibility all its own to the Creator recognizes nature’s independence from humanity. The land must be permitted, just like human servants, to praise creation through Shabbat. In the psalmist’s words: kol han’shamah t’halel Yah, “All that breathes praises God” (Psalm 150). The earth must speak its own gratitude.

In the Torah, the earth is an expressive organism. We read that when Miriam died, “the community was without water” (Numbers 20:2). Observing, as it were, its mourning for a heroine whose miracles were all associated with water, the earth dries up. To hear the speech of the earth is a blessing; but if we do not listen, the consequences of our deafness to the planet are traumatic. The ecology movement reminds us of what our biblical forebears understood: the independent consciousness of nature.

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Lori Hope Lefkovitz is Professor of Gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Academic Director of Kolot. She is also a fellow of the Institute of Philadelphia Association for Psychoanalysis; author of The Character of Beauty in the Victorian Novel and editor of Textual Bodies: Changing Boundaries of Literary Representation.

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