[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Rabbi Michael Paley and Jina Davidovich
“If then you obey the commandments that I enjoin you this day, loving the Lord, your God, and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season – the early rain and the late rain” (Deuteronomy 11:13).
This sentence begins the second paragraph of the central shema prayer. As moderns, the literal meaning of the phrase seems impossible. While there is often a tendency toward magical thinking in religion, the connection between meteorological events and the human relationship to the Divine seems opaque. Do we really believe that our personal piety can affect the weather?
Moral action and the earth are, in fact, linked from the very beginning of the Biblical narrative. Adam, the earthling who is named for and made out of the earth (in Hebrew, adamah) has a dramatic relationship to the natural world. “To Adam God said: because you did as your wife said and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed be the ground because of you, by toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). What did the earth do to deserve such a punishment? It should have been Adam who was cursed due to his transgression.
But to see the earth and Adam as separate entities is to entirely miss the Torah’s linguistic sleight of hand: Adam is the land, and the land (adamah) is merely an extension of Adam. When God punishes the land for Adam’s sin, He does not deflect the punishment from Adam onto an external entity, but rather, strikes Adam at the center of his being. In this moment, humankind and the land relate to God as a single unit: they thrive together, and they suffer together.
In the next significant Biblical narrative, that of Cain and Abel, Cain, who is called “the tiller of the soil,” becomes the villain, while Abel, the nomadic shepherd, is the glorified victim (4:2). When Cain, the land-lover, sacrifices his fruits to God, he is rejected; but when Abel sacrifices from the best of his flock, he is accepted. Why? This response seems particularly unwarranted when Cain’s dedication to the land is based on the charge that God gives to humankind in the creation story. In the second chapter of Genesis, God tells Adam, after placing him in Eden, that his purpose is to till the land and tend to it (“l’avdahu’leshamrah”). Why then, is Cain spurned for being just that: the protector and cultivator of the land? This question is highlighted in the well-known phrase, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” After Abel’s murder, Cain responds to God’s question about Abel’s whereabouts with another question: Why should he be the keeper of his brother, when he was simply told to be the keeper of the land?
Cain’s punishment for fratricide is to become the nomad that his brother was, leading him to lose his connection to the land. Ironically, he becomes the manifestation of his brother’s name: havel – ephemeral, impermanent, nothingness. This narrative poses a shift in the primacy of the relationship between humans and God; now, with Cain distanced from the land that had been so essential to his father Adam, his relationship with God – even if tumultuous – has become everything. In the divorce between Cain and the land, the cracks in man’s relationship with the adamah begin to form while the ties between human and Divine grow stronger.
In the Adam and Cain narratives, both characters see the consequence of their sin as a punishment that is associated with the land. Adam’s sin leads the land to be cursed, and Cain loses his connection to the land altogether. Here we have a formula: man sins and land suffers. When the land suffers, humans can see their wrongdoing and rectify the sin. But then what of Noah? After God destroys the earth with the flood He promises not to destroy the land again. Noah then knows that his actions will be without environmental consequence. But with that disconnect, what will provide the moral barometer for sins against the earth? Noah is called ish ha’adamah (9:20), the man of the land, but based on God’s promise, if Noah chooses to live in opposition to the land, neither he nor the land will see the repercussions.
The arc of the Genesis narrative – from Adam to Noah – creates a chasm between earthling and earth. And even in the later chapters, when the Jewish people are promised the land of Israel – a move that may have reconnected humankind and the land – it is most often referred to as “eretz,” a word synonymous with adamah, but free of the linguistic tie between human and earth. It is only in Deuteronomy, with the above verse, that humankind and land are brought back together. Here, as in the times of Adam, our fate is inextricably linked to the fate of the land: if we follow the commandments, the rains will come and the land will flourish; if not, it will suffer and we will perish.
Still, we are moderns. Can we trust that ascribing to Biblical and rabbinic mandates will ensure agrarian success?
From kashrut to Shabbat, the commandments cause us to practice restraint: we are asked not to labor, not to till the earth, and even to refrain from constructing sacred places during specific times. Seemingly, according to our verse, this intentional restraint in our lives brings the rain. But we live in a culture of excess, how can we hope to bring either early or late rains when restraint is nearly an archaic notion?
Now, for the first time in human history, we can begin to chart the actual impact of human action on the climate. This is no longer a magical notion. Armed with this information, there must be a moment in which we can detect the impact of our actions on the earth. Because of our actions once again the blood of the adamah is on the hands of Adam.
But our religion is not simply one of restraint, for the verse tells us not only about the commandments, but also about love of God. In our verse we are able to equate humankind’s relationship with God with its relationship to the land. While our relationship to the land is based on the restraint inherent in observing the laws and statutes, our relationship to God is one of unbounded, unrestricted love. In this way, we balance the dialectic between restraint and boundlessness, not only relating to God, but also acting ourselves in a Godly manner as we place boundaries on and love in the world, much in the way God does during creation.
For the Jewish narrative to work it has to do more than simply keep us together as a people. It also has to guide us to practice restraint so that the earth can observe its cycles. As the rains change over Israel and around the world, the practice of ritual holiness will allow us to see the earth as distinguished and distinctive. This understanding of the shema will help us to sustain our climate, as the next destruction will not be by the hand of God but from our own hands. And perhaps, with enough restraint and much love, this small people can influence all earthlings to see their kinship with the earth and renew their ahavah for the adamah.
Rabbi Michael Paley is the Pearl and Ira Meyer Scholar in Residence at UJA-Federation of NewYork.
Jina Davidovich is the Program Associate in the Educational Resources and Organizational Development Department at UJA-Federation of New York.