Genesis, Sinai, and the Land Ethic

Why do we have a covenant? What is the ultimate purpose of the Torah’s covenant?

Download the four-page study guide on Eden, the flood, and the Shmitah cycle here. You’ll find original translations from Torah combined with commentary to help you discover connections between the tragic history of humanity before Abraham found in Genesis, and the Torah’s ultimate plan to rectify that tragedy. These passages from Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus help answer the question of why we have a covenant–perhaps the most important answer one could give for our time, when life as we know it may be threatened by global climate disruption.

The fundamental understanding that these texts and study sheets drive at is this: the goal and purpose of the Torah covenant, for society as a whole, is that the Israelites will observe the Shmitah (Sabbatical) year, and that in doing so, they will repair the relationship with the Earth that was destroyed in the generations leading up to the flood. Essentially, the covenant with Abraham is meant to take one people and one land, and put them in a right relationship with each other, in order to create a model for how humanity should live. That model is found in the observance of Shmitah and the Jubilee.

The importance of Shmitah is emphasized by the fact that according to Leviticus 26, if God has to choose between taking care of the people and taking care of the land, God will choose the land over the people. The land is not ‘promised’ to the Israelites except conditionally, based on whether they respect the land’s rights and do justice for her and through her. This is why, according to the rabbis as well as the author of Chronicles, neglect of the Shmitah year leads to exile.

The Shmitah texts teach us not just about Biblical Israel, but also about resolving our environmental crisis now, and about creating peace in the holy land. Check out Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” (on this site) to see how closely Shmitah corresponds to modern ecological ideas about how we need to live.

These study sheets are based on more than three decades of teaching all over the world, and discussions among hundreds of students, refined and with an introduction to make them usable by you. They highlight connections between the stories of the garden of Eden and the flood and the observance of the Shmitah, and are supplemented by commentary that will help you make new connections. Prepare these texts in chevruta (paired study partners) or in a study group. You can also use this abridged version for teaching, but if you’re leading, I recommend studying the long version with commentary first.

Genesis-Shmitah-Covenant – abridged version

Genesis-Shmitah-Covenant – longer version with commentary

Please let me know about your insights. Contact me at rebduvid86 at, or through, where you can learn more ecoTorah and sign up for our list.

Rabbi David Seidenberg

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