Parashat B'har

The Mitzvah of Shemitah

The concept of the sabbatical year reveals the awesome splendor of God's earth.

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Additionally, the sabbatical year provides ample time to contemplate and understand that it is not through the strength or the might of our hand that the earth brings forth its fruits. This not only instills a deeper sense of faith and trust in God, but it allows a shift in how we relate to the earth. The earth must be viewed as a precious gift that has been entrusted to us and therefore we must treat it in a caring and sustainable manner.

Ecosystem Destruction

The inner teachings of the commandment of Shemitah are vital today as humankind flirts dangerously with destroying the beautiful world we have been given. One example is the deforestation of vast portions of the earth's most vital ecosystems in order to support the growing demand for beef.

The "slash and burn" method of clearing land for agriculture, employed globally by both small and large-scale cattle farmers, involves cutting the vegetation of a plot of land and allowing it to dry, at which point it is burned. The land is then cultivated for a few seasons, and eventually abandoned--left fallow for cattle pasture.

Though this process may release nutrients which fertilize the soil, it is only sustainable on a small scale and on nutrient-rich soil. When applied on an industrial level to nutrient-poor soil, like the current situation in the Amazon Rainforest, the result is an ecological disaster.

Richard Robbins writes: "Hundreds of thousands of acres of tropical forests in Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Honduras, to name just a few countries, have been leveled to create pasture for cattle. Since most of the forest is cleared by burning, the extension of cattle pasture also creates carbon dioxide, and, according to some environmentalists, contributes significantly to global warming (Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism)."

Such operations lead to erosion and remove all nutrients from the soil, leaving it desolate. The result is severe damage to the biodiversity of the rainforest, an increase in the release of carbon dioxide, and general biosphere instability.

Instead of being elevated and sanctified, the earth has become trampled and disgraced. The frightening ecological reality we are facing obligates us to rethink our relationship with the land and the consequences of our actions. Many of our actions may derive pleasure from God's earth without paying attention to the drastic consequences they have.

Yet even with the damage humanity has caused, Shemitah teaches us that we must have faith that God is in control, waiting for us to return from our careless and selfish ways. We must also know that the fluttering of the wings of any change in our relationship with creation on the physical dimension will cause a tornado of movement in the spiritual worlds.     

The Water & Rock Episode

The mitzvah of Shemitah provides insight into one of the most puzzling episodes in the Torah. As the Children of Israel prepare themselves in the desert to enter the Land of Israel, the prophetess Miriam passes away and the miraculous source of water that had sustained the people goes dry. God commands Moses to carry out one more miraculous act to instill the true nature of the relationship with the land of Israel deep within the consciousness of the new generation. God tells Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water. 

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Noam Yehuda Sendor is studying for rabbinic ordination at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in Israel.