Almost a year after the twenty-fifth anniversary, with current showings on TV Land promising the version with enhanced visual effects, never-before-seen footage, and a digitally remastered soundtrack, as well as videos and DVDs for watching at home whenever you wish, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial is a part of the cinematic culture of many more people than just the moviegoers of the early 1980s. The opening scenes introduce us to E.T. exploring the area, pulling up plants, and admiring the view. To his horror and astonishment, E.T. is left behind by his friends and colleagues as they lift off towards the sky. E.T.'s time on earth is that of an inquisitive visitor, without possessions, gaining exposure to the ways of the land, never completely fitting in, longing for and trying to connect with his home.
It might seem odd to think of ourselves as E.T., visitors on earth, owners of nothing. After all, our homes are filled with possessions, we pay mortgages and rent, plant flowers, fruits, and vegetables, and our goal, on the surface, is to remain firmly entrenched in the earthly realm. To what end?
This week’s parashah, B'har, carefully reminds us that our responsibilities towards this world, the land, and its inhabitants, grow out of our relationship to God, the true owner of the land on which we live. V'ha'aretz lo teemachayr lee'tzmeetoot, kee lee ha'aretz; kee gayreem v'toshaveem atem eemadee. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and residents with me” (Lev. 25:23). The text makes us mindful that the land belongs to God; we are merely tenants and, ultimately, we own nothing. Baruch of Medzibezh (1757-1810), a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, understands this to mean that we are strangers in this world; our time and place here is temporary. In truth, we are residents with God. The more we distance ourselves from the material world, the closer we may be to God's realm.
Yet we have responsibilities here on earth; we know we cannot completely separate ourselves from the material nature of the world in which we live. So, why then doesn't the text emphasize that God is here with us, or, more precisely, that we have work to do here, together, more clearly suggesting that God may abide with us here on earth, as we strive to elevate ourselves to a more Godly realm. This is precisely how the Degel Machaneh Ephraim (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim, 1748-1800) another grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, reads our text. For the Degel Machaneh Ephraim, "God is like a stranger in this world, having no one on whom to rest the Divine presence." God longs to be with us, to have our companionship, to draw out the holiness in the world. And, so, God, like us, is a stranger here on earth; when you are gayreem v'toshaveem, says God, you are emadee, with me: Even here, you are not alone, for I too am a stranger in this world.
How might strangers walk the earth? With a sense of longing and loneliness, perhaps. Also, with a sense of openness to exploring what is set before them. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "There are three ways in which we may relate ourselves to the world: we may exploit it, we may enjoy it, we may accept it in awe" (God in Search of Man). So often, we are drawn to exploit the earth, draining the land's resources without thought—or enough sense of responsibility—for what will happen when they are gone, thinking of ourselves in the moment, or what best suits our individual needs. Emphasis on recycling and "greening" our communities raises our awareness, and has the potential to refocus our actions towards sustaining the earth's gifts and blessings. While we may walk through a park, admiring the flowers and breathing in the fresh air, it is when we accept our place as temporary residents on this earth, along with God, open to the wonder that unfolds before us, that we are more likely to accept the world in awe. It is with God that we are home.
This is the true message of our verse, I think, especially in relation to the sh'meetah and the yovayl, the Sabbatical and the Jubilee year. A time of rest, the opportunity to sit and dwell, provides physical and spiritual benefit for God's earth and God's people. The cessation of physical activities may act as an invitation to stand back and appreciate all that we have, to give thanks for our accomplishments. Stopping in our tracks heightens our senses and allows us to notice what's going on around us and within us. Being present among the gifts of the land and its people encourages us to be in touch not only with how we cultivate that which nourishes us physically, but also how we tend to that which sustains us spiritually, how we nourish and foster our relationships with God and one another. Learning to wait, to feel, to set aside instant gratification, calls God into our midst and raises the level of kedushah, of holiness, in our world.
Sue Monk Kidd offers the following prayer in When the Heart Waits (page 110):
To be fully human, fully, myself,
To accept all that I am, all that you envision,
This is my prayer.
Walk with me out to the rim of life,
Take me to the exquisite edge of courage
And release me to become.
Just as God is here for us, so can we be here for God if only we are willing to embrace our place as partners and companions, trusting in one another, and coming home to God by striving to live with compassion and with awe for every stranger who walks the earth.
The publication and distribution of JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.