Between the Lines—Behar-Behukkotai

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi David Levy

ויקרא רבה (וילנא) פרשה לו
ולמה הוא מזכיר זכות אבות ומזכיר זכות הארץ עמהם אמר ר"ל משל למלך שהיה לו שלשה בנים ושפחה אחת משלו מגדלתן כל זמן שהיה המלך שואל שלום בניו היה אומר שאלו לי בשלום המגדלת כך כל זמן שהקב"ה מזכיר אבות מזכיר הארץ עמהם הה"ד וזכרתי את בריתי יעקב וגו' והארץ אזכור
Leviticus Rabbah Chapter 36

And why did God make mention of the merits of our ancestors and the merit of the land alongside them? Reish Lakish shared a parable, (he said) [i]t is like a king that had three sons, and one of his handmaidens raised them. Every time that the king asked after the welfare of his sons he would say also ask about the welfare of she who is raising them. So too, each time God remembers our ancestors, he recalls the land alongside them. That is why it is written "And I will remember my covenant with Jacob . . . and I will recall the earth." (Leviticus 26:42)

In Parashat Behukkotai, God spells out a list of blessings that will come if the Israelites will follow God's rules. This is followed by a harrowing list of curses that will ensue if the Israelites fail in this task. Finally, at the end of chapter 26, God foretells that even after the curses, when the Israelites repent, He will remember the covenants He made with our ancestors, and will remember the land. We might assume that the land is mentioned here because it is a part of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

However, our midrash comes along and suggests something different, and perhaps more apt for our lives. Reish Lakish, via his parable, suggests that God has entrusted the nurturing of humanity to the land. When the land is described as God's handmaiden who was responsible for raising our ancestors, our relationship with the Earth takes on an entirely different significance. The Earth is our mother—this gives a Jewish significance to the notion of a "mother nature," but more importantly tells us that we have a responsibility to care for the Earth as we would for our own mothers. Perhaps it is even more fitting, since this week began with Mother's Day. Just as we hope our mothers would be willing to speak up for us as in Reish Lakish's midrash on Behukkotai, we, too, should be mindful to care for our environment and, in turn, look out for Mom.