Sunday, May 19, 2019

Behar (Mercy Mercy Me)



The land is Mine, and you are but strangers resident with me.
                                    -Leviticus 25:23

Oh mercy, mercy me
Oh things ain't what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land
How much more abuse from man can she stand?
                                    -Marvin Gaye, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)

A thousand years ago, two Jewish philosophers debated the nature of God’s creation.  In his Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Saadia Gaon proposed that God created the entire world for the sake of human beings.  But Moses Maimonides, arguably the greatest sage in our people’s long history, argued otherwise.  In his definitive philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed, he notes that in the Genesis creation account,
Torah goes out of its way to tell us, after each day’s work, “God saw that it was good.” Indeed, the story ends with the statement, “God saw all of the works of creation, and behold, they were very good.”  The text does not say, “They were good for humankind.”  God clearly points to the intrinsic value of each of the plants and animals.

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, reinforces this view of humankind as one part of, rather than “reason for”, God’s creation.  It describes the institution of the sabbatical year.  For one full year out of every seven, we are obligated to give our land, animals, and workers a complete rest.  During that time, the land shall have a Sabbath of full rest, a Sabbath of the Eternal:  you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. At the end of seven cycles of such sabbatical years, there is a jubilee, in which land is returned to its original occupants, who may have sold it off during the interim.  This section ends with the rationale for all of these policies, in which God says: The land is Mine, and you are but strangers resident with me.

This passage recalls a Jewish folktale in which two people fight over a piece of land.  Each claims ownership, and each bolsters the claim with apparent proof.  After arguing for a long time, they agree to resolve their conflict by putting the case before a rabbi.

The rabbi listens carefully, but despite years of legal training, she cannot reach a decision.  Both parties seem to be right.  Finally the rabbi says: "Since I cannot decide to whom this land belongs, let's ask the land."  She bends down, puts an ear to the ground, and after a few moments, stands up and decrees:  "My friends, the land says it belongs to neither of you but that you belong to it."

We belong to the land.  We are mere tenants in this vast universe, which God did not make for our sake, but whose power and beauty support and sustain us.  This is the message at the heart of Jewish environmental ethics.  In an era of catastrophic climate change—as a direct result of our abuse and inexcusable inaction—we are not only hurting ourselves; we are insulting our Creator.  Torah demands that we do better.

In 1970, the modern environmental movement launched the first Earth Day celebration.  Less than a year later, Marvin Gaye recorded his landmark album, “What’s Going On”—a revolutionary masterpiece that blended pop and soul music with strong social commentary.  That record’s second single, released in the summer of 1971, was Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology). Together with Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, it became a leading environmental anthem of its era.  Alas, its words ring even truer almost half a century later.

Gaye begins with the titular lament:

Whoa, mercy mercy me—
Oh things ain’t what they used to be

He follows this with a catalogue of the era’s ecological ailments:

Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east. . .
Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas—fish full of mercury. . .
Radiation underground, and in the sky—
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying

The lyrics end with a repetition of the lament, then a tragic open question:

Oh mercy, mercy me
Oh things ain’t what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land—
How much more abuse from man can she stand?

Then Gaye sings My sweet Lord. . .  and with that, the music itself becomes a kind of elegiac prayer, with a long keening sax solo followed by a dark and somewhat dissonant ending.


This week, as we learn from portion Behar, consider ways that you can have an impact on climate change.  The hour is already late—If not now, when?  Ride your bike or walk instead of driving.  Conserve energy.  Eat less meat.  Consume and waste less.  And—critically—support candidates who take the issue seriously—and prioritize it.  As rabbi and activist Art Waskow reminds us in his “Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis”:

Our ancient earthy wisdom taught that social justice, sustainable abundance, a healthy earth, and spiritual fulfillment are inseparable.  Today we must hear that teaching in a world-wide context.  We call upon the Jewish people to meet God’s challenge once again.

For a recording of Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) see:

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