Farmland in the Golan Heights. (Photo/Wikimedia-Shifra Levyathan CC BY 2.5)
Farmland in the Golan Heights. (Photo/Wikimedia-Shifra Levyathan CC BY 2.5)

Leaving the world better than you found it

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Leviticus 25:1-26:2

Have you ever borrowed something from a friend or neighbor? Maybe it was a lawnmower to trim the grass, or a screwdriver to do some work around the house. Or perhaps it was a dress to wear to a party or a book for leisurely read.

In college, in the days before Uber and Lyft, I used to borrow my RA’s car to go to the grocery store or to run an errand, always careful to take extra good care of his car. When I borrow things from others, I pay special attention to keep those items in good shape because I know that they don’t belong to me. It’s the decent thing to do. I try to make sure that I don’t spill something on my friend’s outfit, to fill up the tank before I return the vehicle as a gesture of gratitude, or make sure that I don’t bend the edges of the book.

In this week’s Torah portion, Behar, we learn about the laws of maintaining things that don’t belong to us. God tells us to let the land lie fallow every seventh year; we should refrain from planting new things or harvesting what’s grown. Moreover, we learn that every 50th year we are commanded to celebrate the Jubilee, a time for forgiving debts and loans from other people, and in Biblical and Rabbinic times, letting indentured servants go free.

The Torah teaches, “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me” (Leviticus 25:23). God instructs us that even though we can buy and sell the land we live on, that land is on loan to all of us. We must, instead, care for it, work it, allow it to rest, and never alienate God’s greatest gift to us because at some point, there will come a time to return it back to God.

The hasidic master Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib, known as the Sefat Emet, understands this verse on two levels. One possibility is that when God says the “land is Mine,” we should understand that because God is eternal, we need to make sure to care for God’s greatest creation, a creation that must last an eternity.

Alternatively, the Sefat Emet teaches that the function of this verse is to suggest that we need to care for the world now so that we can enjoy it in the world to come. Viewed through a Messianic lens, the verse teaches that there is hope that one day our world will know the gifts of peace, when we will all be able to enjoy the benefits that come from the earth.

The Sefat Emet is suggesting that we need to take care of our world so that our children and our children’s children and all future generations have the ability to inherit, benefit from and pass on the land in perpetuity. We want to make sure that we leave the land in great condition so that when we return it to its rightful owner, God, it is ready to be lent out again to those who come after us.

It’s like I used to tell my campers when we would stay at people’s homes during a convention or go out into the woods for a camping trip: Leave the place cleaner than you found it. For whatever reason, people have a tendency to take care of stuff when they know that it doesn’t belong to them. Perhaps, by recognizing that God lends the world to use during our finite lifetimes, we can become motivated to take on the sacred responsibility of its care.

May we always remember that our actions in the world — toward the land or toward other people — have profound impact not only on this moment, but on our future generations. And more importantly, may we always be reminded that we owe a great deal of gratitude to God and those who came before us for allowing us to dwell in the land and borrow it during our lifetimes. Now we just have to remember to return it in the same condition (or better!) as it was given to us.

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].