Shemitah & Climate Change
If we ignore God's will that we care for the earth now, we risk losing everything in the future.
This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service.
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In Parashat B’har, the Torah requires residents of the Land of Israel to desist from planting, harvesting, or pruning during shemitah, the sabbatical year (Leviticus 25:2-7). The Torah itself anticipates the extreme hardship inherent in these laws and promises to mitigate it: “[S]hould you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’” God responds, “I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years” (Leviticus 25:20-21).
In case the promise of agricultural abundance is not enough to promote compliance, Parashat B’hukotai contains a warning for what will happen if the Israelites disobey these laws: “And you I will scatter among the nations….Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest...” (Leviticus 26:33-34)
It is a chilling image and a kind of poetic justice: either follow God’s laws of your own free will and let the land have its rest, or you will be exiled and the land will have its rest without your consent. Shemitah will take place either on your terms or on God’s.
We can see a similar poetic pairing of reward and punishment in our relationship with the earth today: if we care for it, it will provide abundant gifts. If we fail to be thoughtful stewards of the earth, we risk a future without resources. If we don’t let the earth rest, it will claim its own shemitah of sorts--climate change and natural disasters will prevent us from continuing to enjoy the earth’s bounty.
One might think that spending this year--the year after shemitah--in Israel, I got to witness how an agriculture-centered economy continued to succeed despite letting the land rest for a year. Yet, the Israeli agriculture industry relies on rabbinic loopholes that allow the land to continue to yield produce during shemittah. While these legal loopholes prevent breaking the letter of the law, they do not preserve the intention of shemitah. Instead, the land continues to be worked to its maximum without receiving its sabbatical.
Many of us today make similar compromises in our own relationships to the environment. We know that our equivalent of “a sabbath of the Lord” (Leviticus 25:2) means curbing our rapacious consumerism; walking, biking, or taking public transportation; reducing our carbon-costly airplane travel and import of out-of-season produce from around the world; and living simpler lives. Yet, these lifestyle changes are highly inconvenient, so we either find ways to justify our consumption or use “loopholes” such as carbon offsets to avoid having to make them.