Behar/ Shavuot: Torah of the Land

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar and Shavuot

Dear Friends:

The following article will appear next week in the e-bulletin of the Coalition
for the
Environment and Jewish Life, but it’s directly relevant to this week’s portion,
Behar. Enjoy!

Jewish environmental thinking brings together strands of traditional
Jewish theology and key points of contemporary environmentalism; among
those strands is the recognition that we have to move from thinking of
the Earth as a mere resource for human benefit to something that is
fundamentally not “ours,” to do with as we please. Some call this the
ethic of stewardship, drawing a distinction between a steward and a
master: the steward recognizes that he is not the owner, but one
appointed to guard and protect something precious. Stewardship implies
humility, thoughtfulness, and self-control, which any environmental
thinker would agree are qualities that our society needs to rebalance
its relationship with the Earth we live on.

In Jewish thought, the Earth belongs to God, as stated succinctly in
the Torah portion Behar:

” But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine;
you are but strangers resident with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23)

In Behar, the context for this theology of the Earth is the cycle of
“shmittah,” or sabbatical years, in which the land lies fallow and
debts are forgiven. The sabbatical year is a powerful symbol of living
humbly upon the land, but it’s not the only place in the Torah that
this idea appears. With that in mind, let’s turn to the cycle of
spring holidays, beginning with Passover and ending with Shavuot, the
“Feast of Weeks.”

In the Torah portion Emor, we are told that in the early springtime,
we are to bring the “first sheaf of the harvest” to the priest, who
will “elevate” or “wave” the sheaf before God, which then releases, as
it were, the rest of the crop for human use. (Cf. Leviticus 23: 9-13.)
Then we count off seven weeks of the “omer,” or bundle of barley
stalks, until we get to the holiday 0f the “first fruits” of summer,
which we now call Shavuot.

On Shavuot, there is another “elevation” ritual, in which the priest
waved the agricultural offerings on the altar of the Temple. On this
holy day, the offering is not just raw stalks of barley, but loaves of
bread, along with animals:

“The priest shall elevate these — the two lambs — together with the
bread of first fruits as an elevation offering before the Lord; they
shall be holy to the Lord, for the priest. On that same day you shall
hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you . . .”
(Leviticus 23:20-21)

For Rashi and other traditional commentators, the “waving” of the
agricultural offerings is to assure God’s favor and avoid destructive
winds and rains; just as the barley stalks or loaves of bread are
waved up and down, back and forth, the winds and rains which sweep
over the land should only be for blessing, and not destruction. Now,
this might seem like a kind of magic, or a pre-modern theology which
draws a direct connection between our rituals and the weather, but
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of German Orthodoxy in the
late 1800’s, sees the “waving” as symbolic of the idea we discussed
earlier- that the Land and its blessing belongs to God alone:

“Referring to this “waving,” it says in the Talmud (Menachot 62a):
that thereby injurious winds and damaging downfalls [lit: “dews”] are
kept away from the seeds and fruit. The blessing of the fields of the
Land of Israel is not dependent soley on physical influences. The
physical prosperity of the soil itself is dependent on the unselfish
renunciation of its products, and devoting them to the purposes of a
God-serving life as directed by [God’s] Torah. ” (Hirsch, Commentary
on the Torah)

For Hirsch, the Land is prosperous when the people of Israel recognize
that our tenancy upon the Earth is for the purpose of fulfilling God’s
commandments, and any blessing that the Land produces is only part of
this greater scheme. Yet I think there is a more universal message in
his words: the vitality of the Earth, anywhere, is indeed dependent on
humankind becoming “unselfish.” We must learn to feel that we are but
stewards for future generations, who depend on our unselfishness
regarding a planet already overtaxed with resource extraction and

The rabbis of the Talmud saw the wave- offerings of Passover and
Shavuot as being linked to the winds and rain; this idea is not so
far-fetched when one considers the effect that global warming has on
weather patterns across the planet. If we learn to see the Earth as
the Lord’s, perhaps we can live more humbly upon it, in a relationship
of blessing and sustainability. The symbols and rituals of the holy
days are times of reflection upon this relationship between people,
God, and Earth. Our ancestors lifted up the blessings of the Land in
order to thank the One who blessed them; we too must lift up the Earth
itself, from being inert resources to that which we hold most dear, as
stewards and guardians, for God, for ourselves, for all other species,
and for all future generations.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- the usual links:

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