Parashat D'varim

Belonging To the Land

An obligation of responsibility for this generation and the next.

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Human beings are hard-wired with instincts to protect and feed our children; these instincts can and should reinforce our attitudes towards our land. We should feel just as strongly that our land and its health must be protected. We should know in our bones that they are one and the same. But when we do not live in our land, when we are separated from that deeper commitment, then we are disconnected from the wholeness of our instincts.

To do the 'right' thing according to Torah, and to do the right thing according to secular morals or science, are often seen in opposition. But even to make a separation between the environment and society--or to separate nature from the world of human interaction, speech, morals, and behavior--is a classic example of the mentality of dualism so prevalent in Western culture. Yet as Jews we know that the spiritual environment is not separate from the natural environment. People who treat other people horribly while seeking to protect land or sustainability are not doing anything laudable; the Nazis, for example, were big proponents of organic gardening.

American Indians have a saying: decisions should be made for the 'seventh generation.' Conduct in a land, the way one treats the environment, is best determined by having in mind what will be best for one's descendants. One's great-grandchildren, it is presumed, will be living in and dependent on that very same land. Deep ecology moves from the family outward: the only truly responsible way to make decisions is to have the seventh generation in mind--and the many, many generations of microorganisms, plants, insects, and animals that constitute the web of life on which all depend. In D'varim, the Torah is trying to clue us in to this logic, but is rightly placing a deeper rationale above any simple self-interested rationalism (or nationalism).

Linking Our Actions & the Land

We learn that not only our own health and prosperity, but the health of the land, depends on our conduct: "And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day to love the Lord, your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give the rain of your land at its time, the early rain and the latter rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. And I will give grass in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and be sated. Beware, lest your heart be misled, and you turn away and worship strange gods and prostrate yourselves before them. And the wrath of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will close off the heavens, and there will be no rain, and the ground will not give its produce, and you will perish quickly from upon the good land that the Lord gives you (Deut. 11:13-21)."

This is really an environmental concept: our national moral conduct helps make it rain, helps the soil be healthy, helps bring the blessings of the Divine on all life in the land. This is a holistic prescription: if we fulfill our role, peace will envelop Israel--its land, its people--and the entire world. The fabric of life on earth is interwoven and interdependent. Our conduct--our self-control over the numerous collective human efforts that create and pollute--is essential to maintaining the health of this fundamental web of life on which we all depend.

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Matthew Mausner is a historian, teacher, and writer in Jerusalem. He is currently completing a thesis on tribal identity and belonging at Israel's Bar Ilan University.