Parashat B'hukotai

Science Vs. Sabbath?

The environmental destruction intended as a punishment for failing to observe the sabbatical year raises contemporary questions of how to prevent environmental devastation.

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Behukotai concludes the book of Leviticus and details the blessings or curses that will befall the people as a consequence of following (or not following) "the commandments that the Lord gave Moses . . . on Mt. Sinai." A particularly strong link is established between the sabbatical year--the rest from economic activity--and the fate of the people.

A disobedient people, Behukotai warns, will be scattered among its enemies and "then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years." The Torah portion's portrait of devastation could serve as a modern environmentalist's worst nightmare. The skies will become "like iron, and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit." Armed enemies, pestilence, cannibalism--Behukotai has all the ingredients of post-apocalypse sci-fi in which the social and natural order utterly break down.

From the biblical perspective, all of this is the outcome of unrestrained greed--of humanity's yetzer hara, the evil or lustful urge, slipped loose from the yoke of the covenant. The power of this urge is held in high respect by rabbinic Judaism as the motivating force underlying all economic development: "[W]ere it not for the yetzer hara," says one midrash, "a person would not build a house, marry, create children, or engage in commerce."

But for civilization to endure and justice to reign, the yetzer hara must be restrained, based on the fundamental understanding that the earth belongs to God. We are living as tenants with a lease, the terms of which include the weekly Sabbath and the sabbatical year, as well as the Levitical laws about not harvesting to the corners of the field, about sacrifices and tithes, about caring for the widow and the orphan, etc. Without these restraints, the yetzer hara engulfs the world.

Do we need a latter-day version of the sabbatical year to fend off environmental devastation? Rabbi Arthur Waskow argues as much in the book we edited, Jews, Money & Social Responsibility, when he suggests that "every seven years, we should give one year off to all of the people who specialize in research and development...Now, when the earth itself is endangered...when better to reconnect the liberation of humankind with the resting-time of the earth?"

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Lawrence Bush

Lawrence Bush is author of several books of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, including the forthcoming Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist.

Jeffrey Dekro

Jeffrey Dekro is the senior vice president at the Jewish Funds for Justice.