Rabbi Batsheva Appel
As I stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon watching the sunset, it was reflexive to think of a prayer. Oseh Ma’aseh V’reishit, God who forms the work of creation, was handy, but so was the prayer “Wow.” said with appropriate awe and appreciation.
The experience also resonates with this week’s double Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai. We finish Leviticus receiving the laws of the Sabbatical/shmita and Jubilee/yovel years. The requirements to give the land a Shabbat of rest every seven years and to return the land to the original holders every 50 years. “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23) How could I look at the grandeur and wildness of the Grand Canyon and not remember that the land is God’s?
But it isn't just the wild places that are God’s. The context of “for the Land is Mine” are mitzvot about the Land of Israel and the agricultural use of that land. Where we live is also God’s and it isn't always easy for us to remember that.
William Cronon, in his essay, The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, makes this point:
“We inhabit civilization while holding some part of ourselves—what we imagine to be the most precious part—aloof from its entanglements. We work our nine-to-five jobs in its institutions, we eat its food, we drive its cars (not least to reach the wilderness), we benefit from the intricate and all too invisible networks with which it shelters us, all the while pretending that these things are not an essential part of who we are. By imagining that our true home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves the homes we actually inhabit.”
Our ancestors had the shmita to remind them that the places that they worked, farmed, grazed, lived, prayed were not theirs, but God’s and should be treated that way. We have to work more consciously to remember that the land is God’s, that the places where we live should be treated that way, including our decisions that affect the land, and it is as important to who we are as it was to them.