Parshat Behar: Shmita and Chief Seattle

In 1854, the American government tried to convince Chief Seattle, leader of the Duwamish Indian tribe, to part with his tribal land. Seattle responded to the proposal in a speech he delivered in March of that year. The exact content of the speech remains unknown largely due to the fact that it was delivered in Indian language of Lushootseed, an unfamiliar tongue to white man. According to tradition, he explained his reservations about the deal as follows: “The land does not belong to man, rather man belongs to the land.” In the eye’s of the chief, the land is inherently sacred. The earth is the mother, the spirits of heaven endow us with the living spirit, and upon death we return it to them. Our relationship with nature, according to Seattle, is akin to the bond between mother and daughter.

In Sefer Vayikra in general, and particularly in the description of Shmita (the sabbatical year for the land at the end of every seven year agricultural cycle) in Parshat Behar/B’chukotai, the Torah does not relate to the land as an inanimate object, but as a living entity with which we have a dynamic relationship of responsibility and obligation. The land rests once every seven years, just as man rests once every seven days (Vayikra 25:2). The Torah warns that if we don’t allow the land to rest, we will be exiled until the land is repaid the Shabbatot that we deprived it (Vayikra 26:34). When we defile the land with our misdeeds, it spits us out (Vayikra 18:25).

Judaism, similarly to chief Seattle, also sees the land as inherently sacred. In fact, Rav Kook raises ideas very similar to the Duwamish Chief’s sentiments in the introduction his book, Orot:

Eretz Yisroel is not an external object, a national external acquisition, only significant as a means to achieve a goal… Eretz Yisroel is an essential unit connected to [our] people with a live connection embraced in its worth inherent within its existence.

Mother EarthIt is told that a student once found Rav Kook sprawled out on the ground mumbling “My land! My land! The land of Eretz Yisroel is so holy!” When asked to explain his odd behavior, he responded: “How often do I have the opportunity to talk a bit with the mother-land which anticipates the in-gathering of her children?”

The striking similarity between the words of Rav Kook and Chief Seattle begs for a clarification of the differences in their respective conceptions of the sacredness of the land. Judaism is a monotheistic religion, while the Indian conception of land is part of a pagan worldview. It indeed follows that in Israel, claims are often levied against those who speak about Kedushat Eretz Yisroel, condemning their behavior as earth-worshiping rituals. So we must ask, what is the relationship between our belief in One God and our belief in in the intrinsic holiness of Eretz Yisroel? At the core, we find a deeper question: What is the relationship between God and the universe?

God and the Universe

There are three basic outlooks as to the relationship between God and the universe. At one extreme, there is the transcendental approach, in which God is seen as distinct and separate from the rest of reality. According to this model, there is an ongoing relationship between the two sides, but God is beyond this world and His existence is external to our reality. This approach is often attributed to, among others, the philosophy of the Rambam.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the pantheistic approach, which does not distinguish between God and nature, a phenomenon that leads to the worship of nature. This approach was widespread in ancient pagan culture as well as, with certain adaptations, in the philosophy of Spinoza. Chief Seattle’s speech is an example of this orientation.

Between these two extremes lies panentheism, a third approach that combines aspects of two extreme, and believes that the world is part of God, but God is not limited to the world, but also transcends it. As opposed to pantheism which assumes God is finite, panentheism acknowledges the existence of an infinite God.

This combined approach lies at the core of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, Chasidut, and Rav Kook’s teachings. In the words of Sefer Yetzira: “[HaShem] is the place of the universe, the universe is not His place” (Sefer Yetzira 4:2);

Thirsting for the Living God

Rav Kook wrote in his essay “Thirsting for the Living God”:

We must see the way we enter into the palace – through the gate. The gate is the Godliness revealed in the world, the world in all its beauty and splendor, in every spirit and soul, in every animal and insect, in every plant and flower, in each nation and kingdom, in the sea and its waves… the higher Godliness, which we yearn to reach, to be swallowed up in it, to be gathered to its light, we are unable to come to this level of complete yearning, it itself descends towards us to the physical world and inside us,… Occasional, we are visited by higher sparks, from the higher glow from the highest light that is beyond all conception and thought. The heavens open up and we see visions of Godliness. (Orot, pages 119-120)

The significance of immanence is not limited to man’s relationship with God, but also has profound implications for the relationship between man and the universe. This approach supposes God’s presence in all of reality and enables man to stand before this reality with the respect and awe of God.

Rav Yaakov Nagen
Yakov Nagen (Genack) is a Rom at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and a member of “Beit Hillel”.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Yaakov Tzemach


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One Response to Parshat Behar: Shmita and Chief Seattle

  1. Annie B. May 20, 2014 at 10:45 AM #

    Thank you for the moving dvar Torah. Beit Hillel is dedicated to bringing Judaism back to ALL of us.
    I have discovered this organization that actually brings mitzvat haShmita to all of us. They let you buy a small plot of agricultural land in Israel for you to own during the Shmita year. Then they let the land rest, so you can actually keep shmita from your home in America! I think it’s great.
    Rabbi Nagen- keep up the awesome work!

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