At first reading, the two parashiyot that are combined this week seem like a divine split personality. Behar ("At the mountain [of Sinai]") is the most utopian parasha in all of Torah after Genesis 1, in which "God saw and, look, it was very good" -- all of Creation! Behar imagines a land in which every seven years, people lose the basic privilege of land ownership. They are forbidden from working the land to cultivate produce and sell what they grow. Instead, everyone eats from whatever grows. And every fifty years, people and families return to the property that belonged to them when the Israelites first came into the land. All transactions are, to use the language of today's papers, "unwound." If your family became wealthy by accumulating land, when the jubilee year arrives everything goes back where it started.
Imagine how highly God must think of us, to imagine that we could realize this vision.
B'chukotai ("by my laws"), in contrast, is mostly taken up with divine reward and punishment. If the Israelite community obeys the covenant in Eretz Yisrael, God will prosper them. If they don't, and continue to slide away, God will make the land infertile, bring hunger, and eventually banish the people from the land.
This is a more graphic version of the second paragraph of the Shma, the so-called "standard theology" of the Bible. Utopian it isn't! It is almost as if in these sections, God views the Israelites as always children, presumed to respond primarily to incentives and punishments.
For a long time I found it very difficult to pray my way through the second paragraph of the Shma. Or to find any divine inspiration in the theology of reward and punishment. Behar, in contrast, spoke to me and prodded my dreamiest dreams.
About fifteen years ago, I was given an article by Rabbi Arthur Waskow that changed my outlook about these passages in the Torah. And I began to understand that Behar and B'chukotai are not two poles, but two sides of the same coin.
Rabbi Waskow reads sections like B'chukotai with an ecological lens. When our way of life becomes unmoored from Torah, we cause the land we live on to become unforgiving, inhospitable to our life. When we don't live by the laws that restrain the power that one person might exert over another, we spin ever faster in a materialistic frenzy. When we ignore the Sabbath and draw out of the earth unrelentingly each week and each year, we abuse the Life that is God's presence in the soil, the waters, and the sky. We cause God to leave our land, our earth. And as a result, we well know from environmental scientists, human beings are having to leave lands that are becoming progressively less habitable.
So in the end, Behar and B'chukotai flow from the same divine vision. The laws of the covenant are, among other things, limits on our use of the earth. Respecting those limits from day to day creates the habits that might one day lead us to the mountaintop, where we might contemplate Shabbat on the wider scale. The scale of pausing our economic machine, or sharing its rewards more equitably, or making sure each family has a chance each generation to start fresh if they need to.
The utopia of Behar is far beyond us. There are first steps and next steps. This Shabbat and next week we call attention at Temple Beth Abraham to the New England Carbon Challenge. It is a simple and fast on-line tool that enables a household to model different changes in the way we use energy. You sit down with your bills, and explore different options. The website tells you how much that choice will reduce your bills and your carbon emissions into the atmosphere. On Monday at 8:00, we are welcoming Arden Cala, outreach director for the mayor of Nashua's citywide Green Team to talk about it.
It takes maybe 15 minutes, and the average participant comes up with ideas that could save more than $700 each year. Most of the ideas are far short of installing solar panels on your roof or wind generators in the yard. Try it! I hope for 50 households to log in this month and see what's possible. You can do it at home, or come in during religious school next week on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday and someone with a laptop can walk you through it.
These changes are a win all the way around -- for the bank account, the atmosphere, and the swaths of our planet that we are ruining in our quest for more fuel. And they are very much in the spirit of the teachings at the end of Leviticus and the second paragraph of the Shma. Try some, that we may continue to live well on the good land that God has given us.