Restoring Eden: Behar and Bechukotai
The loss of Eden near the beginning of Genesis sets in motion the entire saga of the Torah. In fact, the Torah can be read as one long quest to regain Eden. But what does a restored Eden look like?
One of Eden’s characteristics was that none of the animals ate each other, and, more specifically, human beings had no permission to eat any of the other animals. Instead, human beings and all the animals shared the plants for food. This motif of sharing and non-violence between species is used as a signal throughout Tanakh (scripture) to let us know when we are talking about Eden restored.
The most well-known example may be Isaiah’s vision that the proverbial wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the lion will lie down with the calf “and eat straw”. (11:6-7) But the same Edenic characteristic was evoked in last week’s Torah portion, Behar, where we learn that observing the Shmitah, the Sabbatical year of release, means not only letting the land rest, but also sharing whatever food grows from the land with the wild animals: “The sabbath-produce of the land will be for you all…and for the wild-animal which is in your land chayah asher b’artzekha, all of her produce will be to eat.” (Lev 25:6-7)
One of the most beautiful passages expressing this principle of peace among species comes from Hosea: “I (God) will cut for them a covenant on that day, with the wild-animal of the field chayat hasadeh, and with the bird of the skies and what crawls on the land, and I will break eshbor bow and sword and war from the land, and I will make them lie down in surety.” (2:20) This vision is more than a vision; it’s a covenant – a covenant with all creatures.
This new covenant that will come to pass echoes and expands on what we read this week in Bechukotai: “I will set peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you tremble, and I will make any dangerous animal cease/rest from the land, and the sword will not pass through your land…I am YHVH your God who brought you out from Egypt, from being slaves, and I broke eshbor the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright.” (Lev 26:7, 13)
Bechukotai continues last week’s story from parshat Behar about observing Shmitah. However, because the rabbis divided Bechukotai and Behar in the Torah reading cycle, it’s easy to get confused about what the real subject is when we read Bechukotai’s first lines, “If you will walk in my statutes and if you will observe my commandments, then I will give you your rains…and you will eat your bread to satisfaction sova” (Lev 26:3-5). It sounds like they are talking about all the commandments equally.
But that’s not the case. According to Bechukotai, if we don’t follow God’s statutes and are exiled, the reason for this is that exile allows God to give the land what we refused to give her: a chance to rest “for all of your Sabbaths when she didn’t rest, when you were dwelling upon her.” (26:35) For the land “desires her Sabbaths” (or “wills her Sabbaths”) (26:34, 43), and we cannot cheat her out of what she is owed, what God promised her as part of the Sinai covenant.
Even if we do all the other commandments, if we don’t give the land a rest, we haven’t upheld our covenant. This implies not only that the land has rights, but also that respecting the land’s rights is essential to restoring Eden. This theme is woven together with other threads in Bechukotai describing what sound like curses. Many of those curses have to do with eating. In fact, if we read those curses together, it seems that the Torah is describing the inversion of Eden: (1) “you will sow your seed for emptiness, for your enemies will eat it” (26:16); (2) “you will completely use your strength for emptiness, and your land will not give her produce and the tree of the land will not give his fruit” (v.20); (3) “I will send out against you the animal of the field chayat hasadeh and she will make you childless and cut off your animals” (v.22); (4) “you will be gathered (i.e., like a harvest) into your cities . . . and I will break the staff of bread against you . . . you will eat, and you will not be satisfied” (v.26); (5) “you will eat the flesh of your sons and your daughters’ flesh you will eat” (v.29); (6) “you will be lost in the nations and the land of your enemies will eat you” (v.38).
The third curse is not only connected with “anti-Eden”, it is also specifically related to the Sabbatical year: the animals, who should have been allowed to share the land’s Sabbatical year produce alongside the people, instead take the people themselves as their due. Though these curses are ordered from bad to worse, because the Jewish people were in exile for so long, the last curse doesn’t sound like the worst one. But symbolically, if the land eats us, this represents the final step: a complete reversal of the right relationship between the people and the land.
So Bechukotai gives us a choice. Respect the rights of the land and your fellow species, and you will be able to recreate Eden. Don’t, and you will create the opposite of Eden.
Bechukotai ends the way Behar begins: describing these teachings as teachings from Sinai. That’s because this is the goal of Sinai: to create a world where there is liberation not just for the people of Israel, not just for all human beings, but for all those creatures living on the Earth and in the land: “And you will call out liberty d’ror in the land to all that dwell in her.” (Lev 25:10)
It is a call to restore Eden, a call we are still waiting to proclaim, a promise yet to be kept. It is also a call to restore our relationship with God, as it says, “I will walk among you and I will become God for you and you will become for Me a people.” (Lev 26:12) Or in Hosea’s sweet words: “I will betroth you to me in faith, and you will know YHVH. And I will answer the heavens, and the heavens will answer the Earth…and I will say to My ‘not-a-people’, ‘you are My people’, and they will say, ‘my God’. (2:22-25)