“We all live downstream.” Those words, spoken by a member of a first nation community in the haunting film, The Condor and the Eagle, capture a simple truth we are too ready to forget. None of us will escape the consequences of the climate crisis. But some of us have already borne far more than their share of its tragic consequences, including severe illness and death. The film focuses on Indigenous peoples from Northern Alberta to the forests of Ecuador. Unforgettable activists bear witness to unequally borne and horrifying environmental injustice.
The verses in Mishpatim strengthen a resolve to heed their call and stand in solidarity with our Indigenous neighbors.
“And you shall not maltreat (תוֹנֶ֖ה – to’neh) nor oppress (תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ – til’chatzeh’nu) the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. All widows and orphans you shall not afflict. If you do afflict them so that they yell out to me I will surely hear their cries.” Exodus 22:20-22 (author’s translation)
Meaning often emerges from a closer look at language. Two words in verse 20 are found elsewhere in the Torah, illustrating its persistent demand to protect and dignify others, a demand that extends to a commitment to environmental justice.
“Maltreat,” appears again in Leviticus 19:33: “when a stranger dwells with you in your land you shall not maltreat him.” Leviticus 25:14 announces: “When you sell property to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor’s hand, neither shall maltreat the other.” Leviticus 25:17 repeats it for emphasis: “A person shall not maltreat their neighbor but fear your God for I am YHWH your God.” Leviticus 25 has transformed the stranger of Exodus 22 and Leviticus 19 into one’s neighbor. That shift from stranger to neighbor is the necessary prerequisite for a commitment to pursue environmental justice. Today maltreatment includes the ruthless exploitation of our neighbors’ land and health by the fossil fuel industry.
“Oppress,” another verb in 22:20, along with the phrase in v. 22 “I will hear their cries,” also appear in Exodus 3:9. God has heard the cry of the children of Israel due to the oppression of the Egyptians. The allusion warns Israelites not to behave like Egyptians but treat the vulnerable as they themselves expect to be treated. If not, God will surely hear of it as in the past and act accordingly.
The demand of Exodus 22:20 not to oppress a stranger is repeated in Exodus 23:9, this time assuming that the Israelites surely know the feelings of strangers since they too have been oppressed. The Torah believes that empathy can be commanded! Only then does Shmita makes its first appearance in Torah in 23:10-11, the very next verses. The land must lie fallow in the 7th year, the year of Shmita, so that the needy may eat of it.
The emphasis in Mishpatim on the stranger, widow, orphan, and in 23:11, the needy as the reason to observe Shmita, calls on us to stand in solidarity with our Indigenous neighbors who remain vulnerable to the maltreatment, oppression, and exploitation of their lands. They know, much better than the rest of us, that we all live downstream.
Editor’s Note: The picture above was taken at Tamarack Camps during the 2018 JOFEE Network Gathering. Tamarack Camps is located on native Potatatomi land.
Adriane Leveen is Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, having previously taught at Stanford University. Her books include Biblical Narratives of Israelites and their Neighbors: Strangers at the Gate (2017) and Memory and Tradition in the Book of Numbers (2008). Adriane volunteers as co-director of Jewish Climate Action Network NYC and organizes for JTREE USA. She is grandmother to Ezra, age 2, and therefore a ferocious community organizer on behalf of our one precious planet.
Shmita Friday is just one piece of a large conversation that has been ongoing for a long time! We’d love to hear what you think – post a comment below, join our facebook group, and start talking about shmita with your friends and family.