God owns the Land – God is our landowner and property owner, and in B’har, God is teaching us basic land husbandry. The Israelite people could work the fields for six years, but in the seventh year, the land was to have a Sabbath of complete rest. Dever notes, “The people could work the fields for six years, but in the seventh year, the land was to have a Sabbath of complete rest during which the people were not to sow their fields, prune their vineyards, or reap the after growth. They could, however, eat whatever the land produced on its own.” William G. Dever. The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: When Archaeology and the Bible Intersect, 2012.
Growing up, my father always noted that the Victoria Day weekend – May 24th, was time to put in the garden. His mother had taught him, and probably her mother before her – I come from a long line of farmer/gardeners, as do most of us I would suspect, and this was the planting weekend. B’har takes us further back to some of the concerns of Biblical farmer/gardeners. When to plant, when to let land stand fallow, when to reap – and from millennia ago, these principles continue to apply if we are listening to the needs of soil and plants.
For example, even the earth, the soil must have its Sabbath. Driving through the Central Valley in California, one cannot help but note the concretized condition of the soil – and I use that term very loosely. The ground often looks pallid, concrete-hardened, not just by sunshine, but by a lack of all the elements that allow soil to breathe – worms, humus, compost, leaf mould – the organic materials that lighten the soil and allows it to breath.
The instructions given in B’har are very clear. Do not make the Land your slave. Just as we are to bring rachmanes and emes, compassion and truth, to our human relationships, so too must we listen to the truth of the Land.
I especially note that during the Sabbatical year we are able to eat whatever the land produces on its own – not what we have planted – but what grows from the blessing of wind and bird. This food is truly a gift – and it demands that we pay attention differently to cycles and patterns of growth. What grows in full sun, and what needs shade? What grows in dust and what needs to have its feet in water?
Decades ago, when Benjamin was an infant we had a very minimal food budget. I supplemented our diet by learning about foraging and gathering of wild greens and berries – and what a rich diet that was. Miner’s lettuce supplemented with tender pale-green shoots of bulrushes. Huckleberry pie. Shepherd’s purse and wild flowers – there was an ever-evolving and highly nourishing supply of food – available for those with the patience to learn and wander.
Today foraged foods form the menus of some of the world’s most esteemed restaurants. NOMA for example, in Denmark, has led the way in this regard, and has a staff whose work is to forage for both land and sea vegetables.
One of the rules – Oral law, if you will – amongst those who forage, is to never clean a bush or an area of all of its supply. I was taught to always leave at least a third of what was available – for the birds and for regrowth and for God. This food is a gift. Don’t be greedy. Similarly we note the process of evaporation in casks of Scotch whisky. The casks are often oak and thus porous, and so there can be a loss of up to 2% of the contents to evaporation. The whisky is said to evaporate into heaven, and hence the vapours are dubbed, “the angel’s share.”
How do we bring the art of foraging into our human relationships? What is the “angel’s share” in our lives?
We are tenants. We do not own the land –a mortgage merely supports a false premise. A mortgage, borders and fences and boundaries provide us with the illusion of ownership and rights. But these legal fictions enable us to forget we are here to share, we are here to only take what it is we need – not more. We must apply similar principles to the mitzvot of relationship. Don’t abuse the other – don’t take everything from them. Understand the nature of reciprocity. Give back more than you take. Step lightly with each other. Life is a gift. B’har is a profoundly important, albeit short sidra. These words teach us we are temporarily here, we are born of dust, and to dust we shall return. Into that afar, we bury our dead; that afar in turn supports our life. We are eternally in this cycle of life and death, with the Land, the earth, the ground, the soil as our medium of life. Amen.