Monday, May 18, 2009

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Josiah Boyer on Behar

There is a Talmudic story related to my parasha. Two men are in the desert, and there is only enough water for one man to make it to the next oasis. Who should get the water? The rabbis say that the person most likely to survive may drink the water, even if it means the other person dies.

It’s fitting that Behar is being read on the day of my Bar Mitzvah, because, like this portion, I am very concerned about how we use scarce resources.

The agricultural laws of Behar have a lot to do with giving tzedakah. Elsewhere in the Torah, God states that each farmer must not harvest the corners of his field so that the poor may come and gather what remains. My sister, Aliya, and her class from WFHA, just helped to fulfill this mitzvah. When she was in Israel for two weeks with her 8th grade class trip, they harvested hundreds of pounds of beets which a farm was growing so that it could be distributed to the poor.

In my parashah, the Torah requires that we give the land a rest every seven years and do not plant a crop. But whatever grows, and whatever fruit grows on our trees, is to be left for poor people to harvest. But we also now know how important it is to give the land time to rest, in order to make it stronger and more productive. If you keep working the land, year after year, it loses some of its nutrients. You have to give it time to regenerate. So the Torah was way ahead of its time in its concern for the environment.

Right from the beginning of Bereisheet, it is clear that we are God’s partners in taking care of the land. God planted the first garden, Eden, and gave it to Adam to till and tend. Since then, it’s been our job to protect the environment.

I’ve taken this responsibility very seriously. I have created a website that teaches you about sustainable agriculture.

The URL is

I’ve been working on it for several months. Of course, my family has always had a concern for the environment. We compost in the backyard, raise three chickens and use their eggs, and no visit to our yard is complete without seeing our honeybees. Of course, I still have my two guinea pigs, Peanut and Taffy.

On my site, you will find information about sustainable agriculture and links to other sites that explain it in more detail. I also posted links to several organizations dealing with Judaism and the environment. Judaism has a lot to say about protecting our planet and the environment and it’s a good thing that there are so many organizations raising awareness about this.

In addition, part of the money I receive for my bar mitzvah will be given to some of the organizations listed on the site, including Canfe Nesharim, which means “Wings of Eagles,” an innovative Israeli environmentalist site and COEJL, The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Of course, also JNF, where people can plant trees in Israel—did you know that in the last 107 years the Jewish National Fund has planted over 240 MILLION trees?

One other aspect of the Shmita year needs to be mentioned. The laws apply only to the Land of Israel. That’s because that land is considered “God’s Land.” Elsewhere in the Tanach, we read that Israel is supposed to be a “Light unto the nations.” I believe that by keeping the laws of Shmita and letting the land rest every seventh year, Israel can set an example for the rest of the world to follow. We might follow the laws more strictly there, but we need to be stewards of the earth everywhere. If all nations followed these laws, there would be more productivity and a longer time window of productivity.

But that having been said, there is something extra special about the land of Israel. I’ve had the good fortune to visit there many times and there’s no more beautiful place on earth. The sun’s always a little warmer there, the fruit is tastier, and the colors of the landscape are more vivid. I love rafting on the Jordan River, looking into the clear water, where you can almost see the bottom, and passing the willow trees hugging the shore and listening to the sweet sounds of the birds chirping while Elias falls off the raft.

Returning to the Talmudic story that I mentioned at the beginning, water is very scarce in Israel. But leave it to Israel to find ways to conserve water and uncover new sources. If Israel has its way, both of the men in that story would not only survive, they would have swimming pools in their backyards.

As I become a bar mitzvah, I now understand how each of us can pay a crucial role in protecting our planet, because all the land belongs to God.

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