“This is the strongest lesson of shmita, that the non-human world around and within us is filled with its own intelligence, and its own Torah.”
This week’s Torah portion kicks off with our ancestors leaving Mitzrayim (the Biblical Egypt, the place of constriction) and venturing into the Midbar (the desert, the place of speaking or the place that speaks), and as they hesitantly make their way out their enslavers have a turn of heart and begin chasing them. Can you imagine this scene in your mind’s eye? It’s important to visualize it for ourselves because this story holds the image of our neshama (soul/spirit) aching to leave behind all that enslaves it, while our inner fears call on us to go back. This is one part of soul-yearning to live a more conscious life while other elements inside us continue making excuses for why we must go on consuming, why we must keep ignoring the climatic earthquake that is upon us.
As our ancestors make their way towards freedom, they arrive at Yam Suf (the Sea of Reeds) and stop stunned by its shores with the Egyptians behind them, with their place of constriction getting narrower by the moment. At the height of their panic the sea parts, water standing like walls on either side allowing people to go through. Here’s the verse: “At the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood straight like a wall; The deeps froze in the heart of the sea” (Ch. 15 v. 8). The Vilna Gaon (18th century rabbi) teaches something remarkable about this moment, conflating it with Genesis 2:7 “He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being”. These waters, he says, were a conscious creature filled with intelligence by God’s breath, just like us humans.
This is the strongest lesson of shmita, that the non-human world around and within us is filled with its own intelligence, and its own Torah.
The desert was full of hardship but full of wonder as well, and apart from the transformative moment at Mt. Sinai, most of the important miracles appear in this week’s reading. The parting of the waters, yes, but also the manna which rained down from the sky each day to feed them, and the Pillar of Fire and the Pillar of Cloud. In this no-man’s-land people remembered the language of the non-human world and learned to listen and be guided by it.
May we merit to quiet down our pace and learn to hear the Earth speaking to us.
Born and raised in Jerusalem, Rabbi Gila Caine received her rabbinic ordination at the HUC-JIR’s Israeli program in 2011. Her rabbinic thesis explored liturgical, spiritual, and ceremonial aspects of birth in Jewish tradition and contemporary practice. She now serves as rabbi at Temple Beth Ora congregation in Edmonton, AB (Canada), where she lives with her husband and children.