David Seidenberg
David Seidenberg
Ecohasid meets Rambam

“And I will break war from the land” – Shavuot, Shmitah, the covenant, and the promise

There are just a few places in the Torah where the other animals and human beings eat alongside each other, instead of being each other’s food. In the garden of Eden, God gives the fruit trees and the green plants to the humans and animals to eat, “the wild animals in the land and the birds and everything crawling on the land in which there is a living soul” (Gen 1:29–30 – according to Rashi, the humans and animals even eat the very same food). Then things go very wrong. But when Noah’s family gathers food for all the animals and for themselves into the ark, they all share again, living peaceably for the year they spend shut in during the flood.

That harmony, however, is shattered the minute they emerge from the ark: “a dread and terror of you will be over all the wild animals and the birds and everything that crawls, and the fish, for I have given them into your hands. Like green plants I give them to you all to eat. Only don’t eat the soul, which is the blood.” (Gen 9:2–4) This is followed by the first covenant – not with people, but with all the creatures, a reminder that God will not forsake the other creatures even if human beings will.

It seems as though Eden is forever lost, but Abraham tempts God to try one more time, to create a world where all will again be blessed. And the vision of that world culminates at Sinai, where we are given the commandment to keep the Shmitah or Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. (See “Shmitah: The Purpose of Sinai”.) The Torah signals to us that this is a return to Eden in many ways, one of them being the return to sharing food: whatever grows from the land in the Shmitah year “will be for you for eating, for your servant and for your worker and for your sojourner who lives as a stranger with you, and for your animal and for the wild animal that is in your land.” (Lev 25:6–7)

The rabbis picked up on this cue and intensified it. Not only did we have to leave our gates open in the Shmitah year so that anyone and any creature could go in to share whatever bounty grew, but we couldn’t even eat any produce in our own houses once it had stopped growing in the field, because we could only eat what the wild animals could eat.
This is the fulfillment and the purpose of the covenant of Sinai, and if we carry it out, then, God promises, “I will become God for you and you will become My people”. But this still isn’t the full Eden, because we could still eat the animals, and they would still be terrorized by us.

The final vision, where Eden is restored, is of course evoked by Isaiah, with the lion and the lamb lying down together. But its ultimate expression comes not in Isaiah but in Hosea. In one of the most intense and beautiful passages. Hosea gives us Hashem’s message: “I will cut for them a covenant on that day, with the wild animal of the field, and with the bird of the skies and what crawls on the land – and bow and sword and war I will break eshbor from the land, and I will make them lie down in surety.” (2:20)

This ultimate vision is a covenant – a covenant with all creatures, recalling what comes after the flood, a covenant with the people, recalling Abraham’s covenant, and a covenant where the animals will no longer be in terror of human beings, recalling Eden. But most importantly, this new covenant that will come into being recalls the covenant of Shmitah. Hosea’s words recall what we read last week in synagogue in B’hukotai, which continues the story in Behar of what happens in the Shmitah year: “I will set peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you tremble…I am YHVH your God who brought you out from Egypt, from being slaves, and I broke va’eshbor the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright.” (Lev 26:7, 13)

We can learn from this that the strange phrase in Hosea, “and I will break bow and sword and war from the land”, means that just as the people were freed from Egypt, so will the land be freed from human violence. For, Hosea teaches, human violence encages and enslaves the land as surely as the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. This is freedom not just for us, not just for the people, but for all creatures, not just once in seven years, but for all time.

And this is the purpose of Sinai, and the purpose of Torah: to call out liberty, d’ror, not just to Israel, not even just to human beings, but to all those living on the earth and in the land: “And you will call out freedom in the land to all that dwell in her.” (Lev 25:10) A call that we are still waiting for, a promise yet to be kept. Only then, says Hosea, “I will betroth you to me in faith, and you will know YHVH. And I will answer the heavens, and the heavens will answer the earth…and I will say to My ‘not-people’, ‘My people are you’, and (this people) will say, ‘my God’.” (2:22–25)

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and a well-acclaimed English translation of Laments. David also teaches nigunim and is an avid dancer.
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