A Shabbat for God

On Shabbat Parashat B’har, Hanna and I co-led the annual retreat for B’nai Or of Boston. We knew that a mid-Omer pre-Shavuot theme would be the “mountain,” Sinai as starting place and Zion as destination. To begin our preparation, Hanna suggested I find a Hassidic text we could read together for inspiration and, on a hunch, I chose to look in the Netivot Shalom of the Slonimer Rebbe.

In the Yeshivah world, the study of Parashat B’har begins with Rashi’s famous question, מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני, what is the connection between the sabbatical year and Mt. Sinai? For Rashi and then for the Ramban, this juxtaposition of sabbatical and revelation serves as the core text for their different expressions of the content of the Sinai revelation. Reb Noah, the Slonimer, asks a different version of the question. He wants to understand the connection between the sabbatical year and the weekly Shabbat. Further, he also wants to understand why, in both cases, the texts begin with the logical conclusion rather than with the definition of terms. In other words, Shabbat in the decalogue begins with “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy” and then goes on to say that we should work for six days and rest on the seventh. In B’har, the Torah first says to observe a sabbatical year after arrival in the land and then says that we should work the land for six years and allow it to rest on the seventh.

To answer his first question, he cites the Or haChayim’s commentary on the Shabbat in Genesis. Essentially, the Or haChayim says that there is something which God created on the seventh day and that is a soul which energizes and sustains the creation for the next six days. Similarly, suggests the Netivot Shalom, as each person is “resouled” each week, so the land itself must have its soul renewed every seventh year. Further, he explains in language which seems appropriate to our modern ears, this is the reason why we can be expelled from our land for not allowing the land to have its Shabbat. He sees this not so much as a punishment in a moral sense as simply the consequence of not stewarding the earth as we are intended to do and therefore denying the land its “Shabbat for God,” its required time for renewing its sustaining soul.

This also explains why the sequence seems to be reversed. In both cases, namely the Shabbat of the human being and the Shabbat of the earth, respecting this fundamental cycle which is built into the fabric of creation is the true purpose of our existence, again both as human beings and as stewards of the land. Thus we are told first to remember the Shabbat day and be sure the land rests every seventh year and afterwards the Torah spells out how we arrive at that moment of remembering.

One major contribution we Jews can make to help us both adapt to and slow down further climate change is to model and advocate for the return of Shabbat. We desperately need to slow down. Truck drivers in North Dakota who now contribute to that state having the highest work related fatalities in the US by driving too fast on poor roads need help to slow down and get proper sleep. We need to step off the treadmill of “more,” of always assuming growth, of having to get everything as quickly as possible in favour of less. We need to reduce our population to sustainable levels and thus reduce the pressure on our remaining resources. We need to be satisfied with smaller ships, less dredging, and less waste. We need to advocate for more appreciation time, good conversation with friends and neighbours, study and increased opportunities and time for educating those most in need.

Only the week after the retreat, my good friend and teacher Rabbi Barbara Penzner wrote a similar and complementary blog on the same subject using the next sidrah (B’chukotai) and different sources. I encourage you to read it, especially since she is more eloquent than I. It’s called Paying Back the Earth for all of its Kindness. I am also attaching the text I cited from the Netivot Shalom with my own translation.

For so many years, R. Arthur Waskow has written about global warming and how relevant our Judaism can be in facing this issue which challenges our very existence . It is time for all of us to help in translating ideas into specific behaviours in the worlds in which we each live.

This text is now part of a larger work, Ensouling the World, which is available in the Jewish Spiritual Texts section of the ALEPH ReSources Catalogue on this site.