Thursday, May 07, 2009

Standing at the mountaintop

One of the exciting parts of the Hazon-Arava Israel ride for me was that the riding days of our journey from the Mediterranean to Red seas were separated by one of my very favorite Torah portions: קדושים/kedoshim, or Holy ("you will be; for Holy am I, HaShem Your God").

I love this Torah portion, or parsha, because it stands at the very center of the Torah. Not only is it in the very middle of the middle of the Torah's five books, but it is at the center of the Torah's central narrative: the narrative of a people coming out of slavery to the wondrous -- but also terrifying -- task of trying to be all of everything that God expected them to be. And God surely expected a lot of a people who, as slaves, had never even before been expected to make decisions for themselves. God expected them now to have so much wisdom as to be able to even figure out how to be קדוש/kadosh, to be Holy.

The Torah tells of the many stumbles of the people Israel in their efforts to find their way to becoming what God expected of them as they wandered through the desert. They sometimes complain and wish for the simpler times that were the predictability of the simple life of a slave. But the biggest stumble came just before back in chapter 10 when Aaron's two sons, in their excitement, brought "strange fire" before God, and were destroyed for this mistaken attempt to take part in holiness.

The whole rest of the Torah, beginning here with this parsha, is about the acts of repairing from this mistake -- about the acts of learning how to be Holy. The parsha gives a grand list of requirements for being Holy that is a kind of updating of the Ten Commandments. This list is almost the same as the Ten Commandments, but it has one important addition -- it commands us to take care of the poor and make sure they have enough to eat from the produce of the Land. And this book of the Torah comes towards its conclusion with this specific focus on the land and who may eat of it. It declares that you cannot treat this land as a resource that can just be used constantly with no regard for its limit. In the seventh year, the land must -- as God did on the seventh day of creation -- rest. It must have a Shabbat:

וְהָיְתָה שַׁבַּת הָאָרֶץ לָכֶם לְאָכְלָה, לְךָ וּלְעַבְדְּךָ וְלַאֲמָתֶךָ וְלִשְׂכִירְךָ וּלְתוֹשָׁבְךָ הַגָּרִים עִמָּךְ.
And the Shabbat produce of the Land will be food for you -- for you, and for your servant, and your maid, and your hired hand and for the stranger who dwells among you. (YaYikrah 25:5 )

Rashi, the great Medieval bible commentator, says that the reason the Torah lists all these people who may eat from the food of the Land is to emphasize that in that year -- that special Shabbat year of the Land -- you cannot act like you are a בעל/baal -- a master -- over the Land and the people who work and live on it. You are equals, and you must share in the food of the Land equally.

This, the Torah tells us at the central place that is this great parsha, is part of what it means to be a Holy people -- to be willing to rest the Land when it is the time for it to be rested, and also to be willing to make sure all are fed, and all know what it is like to be treated equally as a human being.

Riding through the desert at the beginning of this week, I thought often about what it means to be Holy. I thought of how precious water is. I thought of the great gift that God has given us in these modern times to be so free of the terrible diseases that for most of human history killed most people in the earliest years of childhood -- to have so much abundance of food that literally billions can be fed every day even with so much food just being thrown out before being eaten. These are the gifts that have come with our mastery of the tools of science, gifts that would not be possible without the intelligence that God has given us.

Yet with such great gifts comes so much responsibility. Being a Holy people in our time means limiting our overuse  of the tools of science. It means not squeezing every drop out of what lies in the ground below us. It means giving the Land its Shabbat in its time. And it means that all among us are able to live full lives and enjoy the benefits of this Land.

We spoke of water so often during the bike ride. How precious it is, and how much we squander it. The experts who spoke to us sought to raise our awareness that the water that we use is not just in the obvious uses that happen when we open a faucet and take out water for things like our showers and our cooking. Every product we use -- the very clothes on our backs -- took water to produce. If we're really going to preserve this precious resource, we need to raise our awareness of all the inefficient ways it is used in the manufacturing and food production that supports us.

This is nowhere more true than here in the Middle East. The shortage of water regionwide is not what caused the conflicts that plague us, but it stands in the way of finding solutions. If there ever is to be peace, a way must be found for everyone to drink, for everyone to have the opportunity to live a full life.

Our speakers told us of some of the amazing things that are happening in Israel to solve the water crisis, things like the desalination plant in Ashkelon, and the widespread use of recycled sewage water for the irrigation of crops. Israel is one of the world leaders in these kinds of technologies. They are not cure-alls -- it takes a great deal of energy, for example, to make desalination work -- but they are wonderful examples of the determination of people here to find solutions.


As I let go of the brake levers on my bike to start that final descent from our position near the mountaintop of  הר יואש/har yoash -- some 2,300 feet above Eilat and sea level only about six miles away -- I thought of how precious life is. I cried with joy inside as I felt the wind whipping by my ears and witnessed the glory of the mountain and hillsides I was screaming by. God was out there somewhere and I was standing -- even as I was rolling rapidly on my two wheels -- before that Lord of my life. I was grateful for what I had been given. And, I promised to do my best to take care of it and thus make it a place where God's infinite and wondrous Holiness would be welcome among us humans here on earth.

Shabbat Shalom!

[X-posted to smamitayim ]

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