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Parshat Behar: Sustainable Farming in the Torah

October 12, 2019


In Parshat Behar, God gives Moses some advice on a rather unexpected subject: sustainable farming practices. At first, this doesn’t seem like a very logical thing for the Torah to talk about. Specifically, Behar comes in the wake of some very un-flower-bed-like ideas. Like last week, in Parshat Emor, we learned about rules for priests, how to celebrate the holidays, and the killing of blasphemers – pretty heavy stuff. Whereas salads, on the other hand, are well, light and delicious. It comes as quite a curveball when God tells Moses that the Children of Israel will farm the land for six years straight and then take the seventh year off as a year of rest. Moses and the people are in the desert! There is no water – let alone mineral-rich soil, seeds, and all the other good stuff you need to start a farm. But the Torah is always looking ahead with long-term plans. So, once the people have land, God says to grow fruits, vegetables, and till the ground for six years. Enjoy the all of the wonderful bounty that comes out of the land and savor the taste of this freshly grown food. Then, on the seventh year, stop, for the seventh year shall be a year of complete rest for the land. There will be no growing of wheat, no harvesting grapes for wine, and all of the cultivation of the land will come to a complete halt. You can’t own or sell anything it will fall off the trees and the vines and it must lie there for anyone’s taking you, your workers, your neighbors and all the animals around. This seventh year will give the soil and the farmers a much needed rest. Just like Shabbat, the seventh day, when humans are commanded to stop working and take a break, the land should do the same thing. The year of rest is called “shmita” which literally means “release,” and refers to the full year of rest that occurs every seventh year. Also, after seven cycles of seven years – on the 50th year – there’s a huge Jubilee! In that year, which is like a Shabbat of Shabbats, not only can you not plant, sow, or reap from the soil, but all the plots of land go back to their original owner. The people are in the desert now, but in the future, God tells Moses, every family will receive a piece of land. Sure, you can rent or sell your plot. But when the Jubilee year rolls around, the land reverts back to those original owners. That way, no one ends up land-less, and there will be no real landlords or tenants, only people with a 49-year rent agreement. Because really, God says, the land is mine. Behar’s strict rules about shmita can be really confusing  – but incorporating the ideas of rest and release into our lives is important. Farmers need to take the time to rest and sustain themselves, their bodies, and the soil they cultivate year after year. By physically taking a break from farming and tilling the land, this gives our bodies  a chance to relax and recuperate. By letting the land rest, this gives the earth a chance to breathe deep and let the rays of sunshine and heavy raindrops penetrate into the soil. If you live near farmland or a farmers’ market you notice the seasonality of the crops and what’s available at certain times of year. Once the nighttime gets cooler and the first frost comes, there are no more tomatoes on the vines and the strawberries are long gone. We’ll have to wait patiently for those red fruits to magically reappear in the spring. By giving the land and the farmers a much needed rest every seventh year, it helps us stop and greatly appreciate the earth which holds the rich soil that provides us with precious food that comes out of the ground year after year. Producer: Sarah Lefton Animation Director: Nick Fox-Gieg Animation: Liesje Kraai Editorial Director: Matthue Roth Theme Music: Tim Cosgrove Written and Narrated by Emily Freed Sound Recording: Sarah Lefton

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