Rabbi Dean Shapiro

Parshat Acharei-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1-20:27

John Locke believed that the right to own property is inalienable. The influential philosopher (1632-1704) held that property is acquired through our labor: if we enclose a field, we own the field. If we mix our labor with an element of nature, we own that element, such that by chopping down a tree, we own the lumber or by harvesting grain, the wheat. Judaism does not agree.

Judaism holds that the natural world is God’s domain. While we have a right to use that natural world responsibly (pursuant to the directive of baal tashchit — “do not destroy needlessly”), it always belongs to God. Some Jewish mystics even say that the natural world is a manifestation of God, since “the whole word is filled with God’s presence.” Although Judaism upholds the value of labor, we, contrary to Locke, don’t believe that mixing our labor with the natural world causes it to become ours.

Parshat Kedoshim includes the familiar dictate to leave the corners of our fields unharvested (“Peah”). Nor may we pass through the field twice, gathering crops we missed the first time. And if something we’ve picked falls from the stalk or our basket, we must leave it on the ground (“Leket”). When we refrain from picking our fields bare, we allow the poor to collect their own sustenance.

Locke would say that since we planted the seed, tilled the soil and irrigated the field, the entire yield rightfully belongs to us. Why, then, wouldn’t we harvest as much as we can?

Peah and Leket remind us to stay humble. After all, we did not cause the sun to shine or the rain to fall. We take no credit for photosynthesis. We cannot claim mastery of the physical world but must, instead, maintain a healthy admiration for what is beyond our control, that which sustains our very lives: God, the source of all life.

“You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am Adonai your God,” God states after the injunctions of Peah and Leket (Leviticus 19:10). We do not observe Peah and Leket as part of the social contract, but rather the theological contract. Our indebtedness generates appreciation. We become God’s hands in the world, extended to help others.

Few of us are farmers. Nonetheless, we regularly interact with the natural world, and can demonstrate our respect for it. For me, that involves giving tzedakah, a portion of my “harvest.” It also involves advocating for the protection of national parks and monuments, which are surely the Peot, the “unharvested corners” of our national landscape.

These laws remind me that nature is not an endless bank of resources, mine to draw upon at will. Rather, nature is a living cradle, full of wonder, awesome beyond my ability to comprehend. I must take affirmative steps to protect it.

Some of these are:

  • Not buying pre-packaged produce.
  • Regularly buying organic, so that I know the ground hasn’t been treated with pesticides.
  • Buying cage-free eggs.
  • Reducing my use of plastic, since it is injurious to produce and never biodegrades. I just bought some waxen wraps to reduce my use of plastic wrap and containers. And I decline to use plastic straws. TheLastPlasticStraw.org says that Americans use and discard 500 million straws each day!
  • Keeping a set of reusable cutlery with me, especially at work, so that I don’t use and dispose of single-use plastic forks.

I recognize how minor each of these steps is. Even if everyone who read these words adopted them, their impact on the environment would be truly minimal. Personal change does not replace systemic change. Nonetheless, these small actions are an expression of my Judaism, and my unending gratitude to my Creator, the creator of all. JN

Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Tempe.

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