Parashat Masei

Green Spaces: A World Not Of Our Making

The Levites' city dwellings remind us of the importance of green, agricultural spaces for encountering God's creation.

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As Israel stands by the Jordan River, God tells Moshe of the tribes' inheritances in Canaan. In chapter 35 of the book of Numbers/Bamidbar, God announces the inheritance of the Levites. Their inheritance is quite different than that of the other tribes: they are to be city dwellers.

God is quite specific that the cities given to the Levites must be cities surrounded by open space. The medieval commentator Rashi notes that there must be not just space around the cities, but that some of it must be unutilized space. He says, "'And open space'--this means a space of open area outside the city, around it, to be an ornament to the city. They are not permitted to build there a house, nor to plant a vineyard, nor to sow any seeds."

The cities of the time were small and densely packed with people. People lived very close together, and the sanitation was not something with which we contemporary people would be content. Most importantly, those residing in these cities would be living in a manner different than the way that most of the nation lived.

Israel was an agricultural nation: the importance of knowing the cycles of the earth would be of great importance to the Levites serving the nation as priests, and yet they lived largely urban lives.

Today, however, we are even more distant from the earth than those who lived in the Levite cities. We live lives unconnected to our survival: our food comes from groceries; most of us have never seen an animal slaughtered; and many of us do not even prepare our own food from the basic ingredients, but rather buy already prepared foods from a store or restaurant.

Those of us who are middle class or wealthier often have a little bit of yard in the front or back of our homes to raise a couple of tomatoes or squash in the summer. Those who have little money often do not even have the opportunity to do that!

In inner cities, many people have no recourse but to buy their food at stores which carry nothing greener than a head of iceberg lettuce. For a number of years now, there has been a quiet grassroots effort in a number of communities to take abandoned lots and clean them up, turning them into parks, or community gardens. The results of these projects often produce astonishing changes in a community.

When these empty lots are cleaned up, people take pride in them; the areas become safer as people watch to make sure their work is not harmed. They provide a space in which people have a chance to watch the product of their own labor come to fruit, and to see the miraculous processes of the earth.

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Rabbi Alana Suskin

Alana Suskin received her Rabbinic Ordination and Master of Rabbinic Studies from the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.