If we genuinely want to protect this planet from our trash and our emissions and, above all, from ourselves, just taking small steps towards sustainability is unfortunately quite insufficient. We can’t just recycle and turn off the lights and buy Priuses, leaving dangerous and violent structures in place. Instead, genuine environmental protection demands us to radically reconsider how we relate to the Earth and what our role and responsibilities are here. In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor, we find an opportunity for such a reconfiguration. We are reminded that the Earth is G-d’s, not humanity’s, and consequently that must treat it as such. We can grow crops and rear livestock and otherwise make use of the world, not because it is ours, but because G-d has allowed us to do so.
Parshat Emor includes the mitzvah of the omer, a sacrifice of grain. The Torah commands “...when you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. He shall elevate the sheaf before the the LORD for acceptance in you behalf…” (Lev 23:10-11). This commandment crucially requires us to remember during the course of agricultural production G-d’s place in that production. Rather than going merely from harvest to milling to baking, we are forced to stop and offer thanks before G-d for that harvest. The harvest is possible only because we are blessed with G-d’s Earth. The Midrash confirms this: “[The Priest] moved [the offering] forward and backward, upward and downward; forward and backward to symbolize that the act was in honor of Him to whom the whole world belongs; upward and downward to symbols that the act was in honor of Him to whom belong the regions on high and the regions below” (Vayikra Rabbah 28:1). The offering of the omer is thus more than a simple sacrifice: it is a profound requirement to recognize G-d as the source of our food.
This understanding must be extended later in the parsha to the mitzvah of pe’ah, to leave the corners of fields unharvested for the hungry. The Torah demands “when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the ways to the edges of your field, or gather the gleaning of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” (Lev 23:22) Interpreted with our understanding of the Earth-as-G-d’s in mind, it is clear this commands us to further recognize that our food is a gift. The 16th century commentator Sforno explains that pe’ah serves to remind us that “G-d’s supervision is need at all stages of the growing of the crop.” Similarly, the Alshikh, another 16th century commentator, explains that G-d is saying: “You shouldn’t think that you are giving to the poor person from your own property, or that I have despised him by not giving bread to him as I have given to you. For he is also my child, just as you are, but his portion is in your produce...It is for your merit that I have intended to give his/her portion from your hand”
Often the violence we commit again the Earth is driven by an unconscious and false understanding that the Earth is ours. These two mitzvot provide powerful opportunities to reflect on how the opposite is actually true: we are tremendously lucky to live on this planet and to be able to benefit from its resources. The Earth is not ours, or at the very least not ours alone. We must remember that we work and breath and drive cars on it. It is only with this understanding in mind that we can develop a healthy relationship with all the things that are blessed to live here too.