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:

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Emor (Come from the Heart)

Rabbi Shimon taught: Do not let your prayers become rote and perfunctory; rather, let them be heartfelt entreaties before the Holy One.

                        -Avot 2:13

You got to sing like you don't need the money
Love like you'll never get hurt
You got to dance like nobody's watching
It's gotta come from the heart
If you want it to work
                        -Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh, “Come from the Heart”

Once upon a time, the Baal Shem Tov approached a beautiful synagogue, peered in the door, then turned away.

His students asked: “Master, what’s wrong?”

“I cannot enter,” he replied.


“Because there are too many prayers in there.”

“But Master,” inquired the students, “Isn’t a room full of prayers a good thing?”

“Well,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “All these prayers are old and stale, so they are stuck in the building.  None of them are going up to heaven.”

How do we keep our prayers and actions from growing rote, like the ones filling up the synagogue in this Hasidic tale?  Our Torah portion for this coming Shabbat, Emor, speaks to this challenge.  In its description of the routine priestly offerings, the text teaches: “You shall take choice flour and bake it into twelve loaves . . . Place them on a pure table before the Eternal One in two rows, six to a row.”  These loaves—one for each of the twelve tribes—were known as lechem panim, often translated as “shewbread” since they were baked for display rather than eating. 

Somewhat surprisingly, the priests replaced the shewbread just once a week.  So wouldn’t they have become stale?  Talmud teaches: “A great miracle was performed with the shewbread, for when it was removed it was as fresh as it had been when it was set out" (Menachot 29a).  To which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century founder of modern Orthodoxy, adds: “These Talmudic words are not to be taken literally.  They convey the idea that the sanctuary was immune from the boredom and habit that afflict many religious institutions.  Rituals did not grow stale or obsolete there.”
The commentary here points to a classic tension in Jewish tradition, between keva—that which is fixed and traditional, in text and ritual—and kavvanah, which is the spirit of spontaneity and focused intention.  Much of Judaism is about following standardized practices; the challenge is to do so while still maintaining vitality.

Of course this is true in many, many areas of our lives: our jobs, our parenting, our relationships.  We are, in significant ways, creatures of routine; we often crave the order and stability that a fixed regimen provides.  At the same time, we must take care to avoid falling into ruts, where we simply go through the motions with no real passion or intensity.  To truly live is to be open to new practices and possibilities.


This wisdom lies at the heart of “Come from the Heart,” a folksong first performed by Guy Clark, and written by his wife Susanna Clark with Richard Leigh.

It’s a simple song, opening with a family lesson in love:

When I was a young boy my daddy told me
A lesson he learned, it was a long time ago
If you want to have someone to hold onto
You're going to have to learn to let go

The second—and only other—verse reiterates the first:

Now here is the one thing I keep forgetting
When everything is falling apart
In life as in love, you need to remember
There's such a thing as trying too hard

The rest is all chorus, which speaks the unadorned truth:

You got to sing like you don't need the money
Love like you'll never get hurt
You got to dance like nobody's watching
It's gotta come from your heart
If you want it to work


Spring is a good time to reinvigorate old routines.  Nature is renewing itself, and so can we.  This week, consider which aspects of your daily schedule have grown rote and try to bring a little more intention to them.  How can you act more consciously in your relationships and in your Jewish life?  In other words, how can you be more like the showbread—constant and reliable, yet ever fresh and new?

For a great version of “Come from the Heart” by Todd Snider’s band Hard Working Americans, featuring Rosanne Cash see: