For the Love of a Butterfly

12 MAY 2018 / 27 Iyar 5778

Parsha Summary
In the Torah portion Behar, God describes the laws surrounding resting the land and crops every seven years, as well as the Jubilee year every 50 years. God permits the use of slaves but provides stipulations including the obligation to eventually free your slaves. In Bechukotai, God tells the people of Israel that if they follow God’s commandments, they will be provided with rain to feed their crops. God then describes the long list of punishments that will be inflicted on the Israelites if they do not follow God’s laws.

I moved to Minnesota in August 1999 for law school. By September I had decided that I would do my best to visit one Minnesota State Park each month. I remember walking on a path at Split Rock Lighthouse surrounded by wildflowers thick with butterflies. Everything was color. The sky a bright, warm blue, Lake Superior a deep almost purple, the grasses golden, the butterflies ever moving orange and black. It felt like there were thousands of them.

I’ve long thought that monarchs butterflies are so Jewish. When they migrate, it’s instinct that guides them home.

I didn’t need the Environmental Defense Fund to confirm it: In the past 20 years the Monarch population has been decimated. Every spring, monarchs leave their warm winter habitats in Mexico, coastal California, and southern Florida to travel hundreds of thousands of miles as far north as Canada. Along the monarch superhighways, they rely on milkweed for shelter, food, and a place to lay their eggs. Herbicide has removed the milkweed habitat. Because of human behavior, there is a 90% decline in the monarch butterfly population. Last year walking on paths in Minnesota a monarch sighting was pretty rare. 

Ninety. Percent. 

In parshat Behar, paired this week with Bechukotai, in the seventh year fields were to be left fallow and debts released. (Lev. 25:1-7). Called shmitah  - release – this every-seven-year event was a Shabbat for the land. The world got a break from producing, and for a whole year humanity was reminded that the earth does not belong to us. “It is Mine,” said God. “Oh, yeah,” we said. 

Or, at least, the land of Israel. The laws are also not applied to Jewish owned farms outside Israel. And at least, land owned by Jews. The laws are not applied to non-Jewish owned farms.

But it’s hard to cancel all debts in a commercial society. In Talmudic times, rabbis introduced a device to hand the debts over before the end of the Sabbatical year to a temporary court. A loophole. 

Once colonies were established in Palestine, the problem of agricultural work in the Sabbatical year arose as well, made even more complicated by the founding of the State of Israel. Some Orthodox folks observe the laws by using only agricultural products bought from the Arab community or imported. Others find dispensation by noting that according to many authorities the Sabbatical year, like the jubilee year that comes every fifty years, is binding by biblical law only when all of the 12 tribes of Jews live in Israel. In the 6th century BCE, the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and sent the majority of its population into exile. Those who were deported are historically known as the Ten Lost Tribes, and with 10 of the tribes being lost, the laws don’t apply. 

Besides, the laws are rabbinic, which means they only carry the authority of rabbinic legislation and not biblical law, so it’s easier to find ways around them. What’s more, there is a lot of question about whether the way we currently count the Sabbatical years is correct, and whether the count begins again on the jubilee year, the fiftieth, or on the next year, the fifty-first after the previous cycle.

Therefore, the official Rabbinate in Israel adopts the legal fiction of selling the land to a non-Jew on the analogy of the sale of leaven before Passover. Some find that a ridiculous resolution and there are religious kibbutzim that rely on hydroponics to avoid the prohibition of working the land and donate a share of their proceeds during the Sabbatical year to charity.


If ever the spirit of the law was lost in its letters, I think it’s here.

It’s almost as though we stopped reading at Chapter 25.

What’s in 26? 

Only that if we don’t allow the earth to rest, it will rest anyway. It will rest through drought and famine. Through flood and storms. Through plagues and diseases. Through the exile of whole peoples . . . climate refugees. If we refuse to be alert to the needs of the earth, the earth will refuse to be alert to our needs as well. 

Where did this idea of letting the land rest come from?

Shepherds. Farmers.

And God.

I’ve misplaced where it came from, but I read a story last week about an American who was walking in the mountains of some relatively wild place somewhere else in the world and came upon a person grazing his sheep. Knowing there were wolves in that place, he asked the shepherd what he did about the wolves. “I keep a close eye on my sheep,” he said. “And beyond that,” he shrugged, “the wolves also must eat.” 

In an American world-view where the theft of a sheep destined for human benefit by a wolf who has no commercial value, can we imagine saying, “I keep a close eye on my sheep, and beyond that the wolves must eat”? 

Meanwhile, while refusing pesticides and herbicides in our yards and growing pollinator-friendly gardens is important, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can protect the monarchs or other whole species on our own. I know, I know, Margaret Mead said that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world and is the only thing that ever has. Things can start small, but to actually make big change, we need big things to happen. To restore 90% of a butterfly population is going to take more than a few of us choosing to garden differently.

The Environmental Defense Fund has begun a multi-year commitment to rebuilt milkweed habitat along monarch superhighways by financially rewarding farmers and other landowners who set aside some of their land for milkweed. To help, we could adopt a monarch acre.

If we refuse to be alert to the needs of the earth, the earth will refuse to be alert to ours. The wolves also must eat. So must the spiders. And the mosquitoes. And the butterflies. There is a time and a place for legal fiction, but this isn’t it. There is also a time and place for new understandings of ancient texts. If ever there were such a time, it is now.