Taking care of the sacred earth

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“One is punished for misusing consecrated items.”

The last few days of the Daf Yomi text have been mired in discussing benefit derived from prohibited leaven. Today the discussion turns to an analysis of the misuse of consecrated items and I have a strong opinion on the topic. The text asks if “one who intentionally misuses consecrated items is liable to receive death at the hand of Heaven?” And don’t get too upset over the mention of the death sentence like I did when I first read about it and went on about proportionality of punishment. This death sentence is the spiritual kind and results in no bodily harm while here on earth. But after that, who knows?

The Rabbis link the misuse of consecrated items with the improper consumption of teruma that was ear-marked for the priests. The Rabbis in chorus say that both transgressions are punishable by the (spiritual) death penalty, and for extra emphasis call for a flogging. And with that we go back a few days where there was a constant call for flogging for the transgression of eating leaven on Passover. And before you get very upset about this, I am told that there were no Rabbis in the courtyard hunched over poor souls with whips in their hands. The mention of flogging was to keep people in line, but it was never actually carried out. At least, that is what my Daf Yomi friends tell me.

The Rabbis seemed to work really hard to keep people in line, but I can’t help wondering how much harder they actually made things with the threats of death and flogging. This is the time of year to remember that there was another major religion waiting in the wings that asked significantly less of its followers in terms of following day-to-day rules.

The Rabbis return again and again to intent and what is in one’s heart, which is often as important as one’s actions. We learned that one can dismiss ownership of leaven left somewhere that he cannot travel to easily by renouncing it. Of course, intention counts, but we have been told that appearances also count, because one should not provide the appearance of serious transgressions that could be misconstrued.

We are provided with examples of where intention matters. If one removes the top of a plant on Shabbat and accidentally also uproots it, he is not liable, because he violated a Rabbinic prohibition. There is the complexity of Torah and Rabbinic law added into the intention equation. If one acts without intention and violates Torah law, it is a very different matter. We are told that as a result, violation of consecrated items are a serious offense regardless of intent. Despite the usual diversity of opinion, the Rabbis agree that misuse of a consecrated item cannot be easily forgiven regardless of intent.

In a real head-turner that the text itself calls “puzzling” the Gemara discusses “the fitness” of leavened bread that is still attached to the ground and could not yet become teruma. And what? I believe the text refers to wheat that grows from the ground, but it says “leavened bread” and in my imagination I see a field of plants with bread slices growing from them. Perhaps this is a bio-engineered field and the bread slices on the bushes have been modified with extra nutrients so that someone like me who is pre-diabetic can enjoy a nice slice of white bread with butter without my blood sugar spiking. If the Gemara is puzzled, what hope is there for the rest of us?

This text is a reminder of how complicated it is to be a Jew and how much is expected of us. At the essence of that complication is the respect for consecrated items. The Rabbis’ concern for a bulk of teruma can be extended to the welfare of our earth which deserves more respect and care than we have given it. Extreme weather conditions such as massive snowstorms followed by 70-degree weather pattens in the northern United States and the destructive wildfires in California and Australia that seem to get worse every year demonstrate how climate change has created so much havoc in our lives. We are paying the price now for the years of neglect and not taking care of the sacred earth.

There are linkages between deforestation and pandemics – as wild animals lose their natural habitats they become more readily in contact with human beings and transmit disease. And there are new diseases that are being carried by wild animals as I write this that could potentially contribute to the next pandemic and the next one and the next one. It will never end until we provide our land with the same respect the Rabbis in the Talmud show for an olive bulk of leaven.

I can’t help but ask when will the cycle of denial and destruction will ever end. How much more of the state of California needs to burn? How many more people need to die from animal-transmitted disease? How many cities need to be destroyed by severe flooding? How much more can we bear?


About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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