As I write this, I am sitting on a plane. It should not be surprising, yet it is undeniably powerful how much a shift in our physical location can impact our perspective. The world looks very different from 30,000 feet. As I have read and reread this parsha, my eyes have wandered to the view of the world down below as seen from the small airplane window to my right—my portal looking out on a multicolored quilt of patches of different shapes, sizes, and colors: a dark green field next to a light green field, a brown patch of bare soil, a forest, a stretch of highway extending off into the distance, and a lake or two. It is beautiful and everything looks so small, so distant, so perfect.
Yet, back on the ground, I know that the idyllic view from the sky is not so perfect close up. Were I to be transported 30,000 feet straight down I would see cars whizzing by on the stretch of highway. I would see litter blown by the wind collecting along the edges of the fields. I would see the power plant on the horizon puffing its mix of steam and fossil fuel exhaust in a small but steady stream that slowly, gradually dissipates into the blue sky dotted with clouds. Individually, any one of these things is no big deal. And they are all easily overlooked from the sky. But we humans can’t live at 30,000 feet. We make our homes down on the ground, in the midst of the flaws and challenges that surround us, many of which are the result of our activities and our creative vision for how we think the world should be.
I initially picked this passage to write about because of the powerful message contained within it about the land and our relationship to it. God says to us: “The land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Leviticus 25:23). It does not get much clearer than that. And a ride in a plane only helps to reinforce the fact that we are such tiny players in God’s universe. The large-scale impacts we have on the world are visible from 30,000 feet: fields planted with wheat, corn, and soybeans, interstate highways, streetlights, reservoirs. But any one of us in our individual creatureliness is completely invisible from such a height. Who we are as individuals is completely irrelevant. We are practically invisible. What matters is the large-scale impacts we have in the collective. The physical changes we make to the environment are what define us on a planetary scale. Who are we kidding to think that any one of us can actually claim ownership of anything when we are so minuscule from a zoomed-out vantage point? The land is what is visible from on high. And the land is what endures.
I continue to be captivated by the instruction of this passage, and I love that God tells us explicitly that “the land shall observe a Sabbath for the Lord.” How does the land (ha aretz) observe anything? What does that mean? And how are we to define ha aretz anyway? The land is not a single thing. It is not even composed of a single thing. And land takes on so many different forms and looks so different depending on what land we are talking about and where it is located. Land in the deserts of the Aravah looks very different from the land along what the white European colonial settlers renamed the Charles River that flows near my home in Cambridge.
Soil can look incredibly different from place to place. Red-orangey soils get its bright coloring from an abundance of iron contained within. My native Midwest is known for its dark, rich topsoil, which has been in high demand for farming for 200-plus years. Much of the soil of New Hampshire to the north of where I live now is shallow with underlying layers of dark gray granite that burst through the surface here and there, giving it the moniker the “Granite State.” Countless rock fragments have broken off over the millennia in various shapes and sizes, scattered here and there or gathered by hand into stacks and rows used to demarcate territory for whatever reason.
Soil is also a microcosm in itself—a tapestry of living things intermixed with organic material, some of which is visible to the naked eye and some microscopic. Soil is never a monolith but rather an intricate ecosystem in miniature. So how can such a multitude of things work together in concert—living creatures and inanimate material—to observe a sabbath for the Lord? I don’t know, but I love how such a question forces us to interrogate and expand our understandings of what sabbath is and what sabbath should do.
Perhaps we have more in common with the soil than we realize. Rest is clearly important to God. And even the land in its complexity and diversity is worthy of it—of a chance to pause, to rest, to rejuvenate. The year of shabbaton, a period of complete and solemn rest prescribed in Leviticus 25:4, can also serve to remind us tiny humans that the world exists just fine beyond our control. In the year 5782, we happen to find ourselves in one of these shabbaton or shemita years—”a year of release.” Once again, we have a chance to relearn firsthand that life will always continue without us. The land will get along just fine without our tilling, cultivating, and managing. And like the complex, interwoven soil itself, God seeks to remind us that shemita involves the collective whole. The first mention of shemita in Exodus 23:11 begins with ensuring that even the poorest among us and the wild animals have food available to eat. And in Parashat Behar, God reassures us that we too would be able to survive for the necessary time should we actually follow God’s commandment for this shemita year on behalf of the land. And in the process, perhaps we would be able to internalize the truth that we are never as in control as we would like to think.
In this never-ending season of pandemic, what many of us thought would be a two-week period of quarantine is now going on 100-plus weeks of disruption, disorientation, pivoting, and waiting. We wait for the pandemic to be over. We wait for the threat to be over. Will it ever? And we continue to find ourselves in a conflation of times and tenses. We suffered from too much time when the world shut down. And not enough time when flexible work schedules and hybrid set-ups blurred the lines between work and leisure, between office and home, between sabbath and the rest of time.
In our day-to-day lives, one year can too easily blend into another. Up close we can get bogged down with the details and miss the beauty of the larger picture. Similar to the view from the airplane window, God reminds us to take a step back once in a while in order to be reminded of that greater world. The earth is beautiful up close and from far away. But we are only a small part of it. The land, of which we are a part, deserves to rest in its totality. God’s world cannot be considered solely in terms of what it produces or how that relates to our survival. It is much more than that, and God demands that we understand and appreciate such a truth. As scripture reminds us, the earth is never ours. It belongs to God alone, who allows us to roam about it as tenants and aliens. We are not the earth. We do not belong to the earth. But we do live on the earth. May we celebrate our place in this beautiful, messy, complicated tapestry. And may we remember to make some time and space with the hope of gaining from even a slight change of perspective.
Rev. Tom Reid is the associate director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership of Hebrew College. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and serves as pastor of Newton Presbyterian Church in Newton Corner. Before changing careers to ordained ministry, Tom spent over 10 years working in a variety of fields, including clean energy and innovation in Boston, environmental and green building consulting in Boston and Dubai, and business education in Madrid. Tom is a proud alumnus of the University of Kansas, holding a BA in environmental studies, Latin American studies and Spanish. He also holds an MA in contemporary European politics, policy and society funded by a Fulbright grant to the European Union and an MDiv from Boston University School of Theology with a certificate in religion and conflict transformation.
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