The Earth Belongs to God

The Earth belongs to God

by Avraham ben Yaakov

The two portions of BEHAR and BECHUKOSAI (which in many years are read on the same Sabbath), put the seal on the book of Leviticus, which together with the latter part of Exodus covers all the laws given to the people of Israel in the Covenant at Mount Sinai. The book of Numbers then tells the story of the people’s journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land of Israel, while in Deuteronomy, as they stood poised to enter the Land, Moses reviewed all the laws of the Covenant.

The Earth belongs to God

The theme of the portion of BEHAR is property and ownership, particularly the ownership of land, which provides us not only with our living space but with all the food and other resources we consume.

Today well over half of humanity are crammed into great urban agglomerations, and the majority have little or no connection with the farmlands that produce their food. BEHAR invites us to consider a very different world of Israelite small farm-owners, who are at perfect liberty to plant, tend and harvest their crops for six years, but are commanded to cease all agricultural labor in the seventh “Sabbatical” year, forcing them to trust in God to bless their endeavors and provide their needs. To a person who may feel he can barely survive when he does till his land, it is no mean challenge to be told that for one year out of every seven he may not even do this!

The law of the Sabbatical year comes to teach the farmer that even if sees himself as the “owner” of the land he farms, ultimately the land does not really belong to him but to the One who is the Owner of Everything. God gives the Israelite farmer license to work the land for six years, but revokes this license every seventh year to impress upon us that even with all the efforts we have to make to feed and sustain ourselves, we are always dependent on God to bless these efforts and provide us with our needs.

Humans have a natural tendency to believe that “it is my power and the strength of my hand that provides me with this prosperity” (Deuteronomy 8:17), and this belief is usually coupled with the urge to acquire ever more material wealth, as if this can give security. But the lesson of the Sabbatical year is that security comes not from human efforts alone but through God’s blessing. For: “The earth and its fullness belong to God; the world, and those who dwell in it” (Psalms 24:1).

“Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all you inhabitants of the world. rich and poor together. As to those who trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches: no man can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him. Even wise men die, the foolish and brutish perish together, and leave their wealth to others. Their inward thought is that their houses shall continue for ever and their dwelling-places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names . But man does not remain in honor; he is like the beasts that perish” (Psalms 49:2-3; 7-8; 11-13).

Humans “call their lands after their own names”, but the Sabbatical year comes to remind us that we are not the real owners, and in the end the land reverts to its true Owner.

The laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years contained in BEHAR apply only to Israelites in the Land of Israel. They are not part of the Noahide code of Torah law, and gentiles are under no obligation to cease agricultural work on their own land in these years. However, just as the annual cycle of the festivals of Israel have significance not only for the people of Israel but for all the nations (as discussed in the Torah for the Nations commentary on EMOR ), so too Israel’s observance of the Sabbatical cycles carries a message for all humanity.

The futile race for wealth

Most of the world today is caught up in a race for ever greater prosperity, and thus the worst possible “illness” is thought to be economic recession, when the gross domestic product of countries enters into decline, with the result that people literally become poorer. Yet the greater humanity’s efforts to get wealthier, the more they seem to be frustrated by a succession of natural and other calamities that belie the assumption that “it is my power and the strength of my hand that provides me with this prosperity”.

Approximately 40% of the world’s agricultural land is now seriously degraded. Between 1950 and 1984, the so-called “Green Revolution” lead to a 250% increase in world grain production, but much of this gain is non-sustainable, and there are signs that not only are new technologies reaching their peak of assistance but they may now be contributing to soil contamination and the decline of arable land. Severe drought is plaguing countries in the Horn of Africa, Middle East, Central Asia, Central America and Australia. With the steady exhaustion of food resources, over-drafting of groundwater, wars, internal struggles and economic failure, famine is a worldwide problem causing widespread destitution, malnutrition and heightened mortality. Leading experts on agricultural commodities foresee “mass starvation” in the event of a major North American crop failure.

One of the most startling signs that the earth itself is “rebelling” against humanity’s unceasing and unthinking quest for ever greater prosperity is the mysterious collapse in the global population of the humble honeybees, which are required for the pollination of flowering plants and which pollinate 90% of commercial crops worldwide, including most fruits and vegetables, nuts, sunflowers, coffee, soy beans, cattle feed and even cotton. The last four years have seen the death of billions of honeybees world wide, and scientists are no nearer to knowing what is causing the catastrophic fall in numbers.

The Blessings and the Curses

Most of the portion of BECHUKOSAI is taken up with God’s promises of the great blessings that ensue from following the commandments of the Torah and the terrible curses that result from ignoring and violating them.

“And if for all this you will not listen to Me but walk contrary to Me, then I will walk contrary unto you in fury; and I also will chastise you seven times for your sins.” (Leviticus 26:27-8).

The Torah invites humanity to observe God’s laws so as to enjoy the great benefits they bring. If we refuse, we lay ourselves open to the dangers of God’s chastisements, which fly in the face of our human illusions of grandeur and power, coming to prove that despite what we may think, “The earth and its fullness belong to God”.

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