Rabbi Laura Sheinkopf, an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program (Class 9), is a graduate of Hebrew Union College and Columbia University. Raised and educated in Massachusetts, she now lives in Houston, she is a writer, a teacher and the mother of two. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about “the Shabbat of the land,” otherwise known as Shmitah, when the Torah commands the cessation of farming the Land of Israel. And so with the sounds of the Shofar, on the seventh and fiftieth years the people of Israel set down their pruning hooks and let the land lie fallow. The Torah promises a bumper crop the following year and indeed what we know now about farming supports this conclusion.This is one of those commandments that we moderns love because it seems to make sense. And yet, this wisdom has not played in a role in the way we have approached the task of culling food from the land. There is a kind of balance and proportion that dictates our ancestors’ relationship to the land. We believe in our own abilities and question the design of nature. We find new ways of sowing and reaping, predicting weather, fertilizing crops and creating new ones, and when our efforts prove detrimental we throw up our hands in exasperation at the notion that the universe contains within it the ability to perpetuate itself. The very gifts that make us echoes of the Divine, created in the imagine of God, can and have so often eclipsed the evidence that we have in fact been given all that we need if we choose to act as guardians rather than rulers of the land.
The ancient Israelites may have known less about machinery, biology, physics and the like, but they knew more about the divine wisdom that can not be observed in only one aspect of the world but rather in the relationships between and amidst its parts. The Kabbalists say that God withdrew from the world after it was created and that withdrawal left room for human beings to take on the noble task of repairing the world. This withdrawal allows us to utilize the very abilities that make us partners with God in the ongoing task of creation showing us that our limits are also our gifts. Stepping back is, in a sense, a way of understanding one’s place in the big picture and it is only in understanding our place that we have found ways to gather what we need from the land and no more. The Torah also says that we should forgive debts during these years and this too preserves the land as it removes some of the necessity to produce too much. We are blinded by our greed and by our fear because all that we have become has not been tempered by an awareness of the larger context in which we exist. Some people say its fear of the wrath of the Almighty to compels us to set down the hoe and back away from the land. Others say it is reverence and still others say that it is simply logical to follow these rules. Either way, the willingness to back up and resist our compulsive need to manipulate the earth is a must. The consequences of our over production are numerous and detailed in books such as, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but the basic premise is right here in this week’s Torah portion.
South Texas is built on the memories of the Dust Bowl days. Years ago I visited a little old lady who had grown up on a farm near Odessa. She used to tell me stories about those days when she would go to sleep at night worried that when she awoke she might find herself living in Oklahoma. The soil had been stripped by years of over farming so that a drought and some wind produced clouds that were as blinding as the hubris and greed that drove this and so many other environmental crises.
Sometimes I fear we are too far East of Eden at this point. Have we been so utterly seduced by our own gifts that we have already fallen like Narcissith into our own reflection? But this can not be entirely true since the earth still displays its wisdom and its beauty for all who care to take notice. Can we back up; trust that the earth will provide if we are able to honor its cycles and its limits? It is like teaching or parenting in a way. We want so much to pour all that we know into our children. We want to shape and mold them in ways that we feel would cause them the least amount of pain and the most amount of happiness. But being a participant in the flourishing of a human being requires a restraint similar to the one that the Torah proscribes for us in farming our land.
It is all perspective I suppose and that perspective can be attained only when we retreat a bit, which is where I find myself high on the board walk that leads to the rough and beautiful waters of the North Atlantic. I am back home on Cape Cod with my own children plus the entire extended brood for Passover. It is typically windy and a bit colder than normal for March and my brother and I have decided to pack up everyone and the dog for a brisk walk along the untouched beaches of the National Seashore – a place we adored as children for its enormous sand dunes and waves. The water here is always frigid, the undertow always dangerous but this only added to our exhilaration as kids and we shrieked with fear and delight at the sight of incoming waves. We laughed as the undertow pulled us from shore, headed the persistent warnings of parents to fight the currents desire to move us down shore and away from their watchful eyes. This is Marconi Beach where the first cross Atlantic radio signal was sent and this fact does not impress our children who are running awkwardly down the boardwalk screaming about the cold and the size of the waves. I am standing a few feet back with my Grandmother and the dog rushes past and down to the children and I see my tiny three year old daughter from my perch. She is but a spec of pink parka tottering across the sand, a small and precious dash of color against a landscape that is both treacherous and beautiful. I marvel at my parents and their willingness and ability to have let us go and enjoy these beaches just as they let us roll down giant sand dunes or ski across frozen gold courses and steep hills. They were appropriately cautious but we did grow up in an unusually untouched part of the world and the sanctity of this glorified sandbar we called home was never lost to them.
They gave it to us to explore without many limits and it is those memories that come rushing back to me now as I watch my own children face this same ocean. And somehow this is a magical troika two generations and the land connecting the two. Somehow now I can see that all of those times we played in the waves, wandered the marshes and the woods without adults, dug for clams and built elaborate sand castles as the sun went down and the water crept up was our time in Eden, our preparation for a lifetime of living in a world that forgets just how delicate the balance between land and sea, wind and water, man and the elements really is. I am cautious for my children but eager for them as well. This is the falling in love part of life. The time in life when the taste of salt from the ocean is tinged with the memory of a long day of laughter and play. It’s the time when we bind ourselves to the earth and all that it gives so that when we grow and suddenly find ourselves with so much to lose in a storm or a drought we will proceed not just with caution but with confidence that we can live well within nature’s parameters.