The Eco-Torah of an Indigenous People
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *
On the third day, plants spring up all around the Earth (Gen 1: 11-12). As befits an indigenous community of farmers and shepherds dependent on meadow grass, wheat, barley, olives, and other fruit, the vegetation of this day becomes the seed of the second story of Creation – – the story of Eden.
Indeed, we can trace the crucial ecological outlook of Torah through a thread that begins with Eden and continues through Pharaoh’s plagues, the parable of Manna and Shabbat, the Shmita /Sabbatical year, and the Song of Songs.
Just before Eden, the Torah says (Gen 2: 5 ) — “When no shrub of the field was yet on Earth …. because there was no human to till the soil. ” This suggests that the reason for the Creator to birth the human race is the need for shrubs and grasses to have the loving touch of human presence – an early wisdom about the intertwining of what we would now call an ecosystem. The shrubs need us; we need them.
Indeed, the intertwining goes so deep that there is indeed a birthing. From the adamah (Earth) comes forth adam (the human earthling). First this newborn loses the ‘ah,’ the Hebrew hei that is the sound of breathing. Then the Creator Breath of Life (YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh Elohim) “blew into the newborn’s nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living, breathing person.” (Gen 2: 5-7)
This tale of birthing was itself born from the birthing of an individual human being. While the fetus is still in the mother’s womb, it has no independent breath. .The mother’s breathing sustains it, through the placenta. When the newborn loses this organic, suffused breath -– this “-ah,” represented by the Hebrew letter “hei – it must take its first independent breath. Perhaps someone taps the newborn’s tush – and s/he begins to breathe.
This biological process is the very model for the Torah’s story of how adam is born from adamah – from Mother Earth. Since the mother here is not a mammal but the Earth itself, which sprouts the shrubs and trees as the soil sprouts humankind, we see another artful teaching that vegetation and humanity are family.
The human species is born into the Garden of Delight. One of the myriad ways to understand the parable of Eden is that the Breath of Life speaks to the human race: “On this Earth there is wonderful abundance. Eat of it in joy. But you must restrain yourselves just a little: Of this one tree, don’t eat." (Gen 2: 15-17). Notice that the focus of the story isvegetation fromthe third day of Creation: a tree. Indeed, the description of abundance is focused on many forms of vegetation – – not on killing or eating animals.
The human species then refuses to restrain itself, eats from the forbidden tree, and as a result the abundance disappears. Only by toiling every day of our liveswith the sweat pouring down our faces, the story warns us, will we find enough to eat from an Earth that gives forth mostly thorns and thistles. (Gen 2: 17-19)
In our own lives, we relived this disaster in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer of 2010. BP would not restrain itself, and the result was the death of its own workers, animals, and others living in the region, as well as disastrous damage to the overflowing abundance of the Gulf. If we reconceptualize God not as a wrathful King but as the Interbreathing that brings consequences, fruitful or destructive, that result from our behavior, then we can see this disaster in the Gulf (and in the Garden) not as wrathful punishment but as predictable result.
This was not a moment unique in human history: The cautionary tale of the ruined Garden of Delight has been ignored by many human cultures that have despoiled some sacred patch of Earth. Perhaps it was indeed the "original,” or at least the ever-recurring, sin. Today we are faced with the prospect that if we cannot learn to restrain ourselves in pouring CO2 and methane into the atmosphere of Earth, that sacred source and venue for the Interbreathing of all life, we will ruin the abundance of the planet as a whole.
Meanwhile, we remember that besides the disappearance of abundance, there is a second disaster that emerges from trying to gobble up the Garden, trying to dominate our Mother Earth instead of loving her abundance. Just as the humans have intruded domination into their relationship with the Earth, hierarchy and domination will come into human society. Men will rule over women. (Gen. 2: 16) If the human species insists on tyrannizing its own Mother Earth, then male human beings are likely to insist on tyrannizing their mothers, daughters, sisters, wives.
In the story of Pharaoh and the Plagues, the Torah points to the centralization of unfettered, unaccountable, arrogant, and stubborn power as the most dangerous threat to Earth's abundance. Pharaoh oppresses human beings, and his arrogance afflicts the Earth itself. Most of the famous Ten Plagues strike at the vegetation that arises from the fertile Nile. When each Plague comes, at first Pharaoh is frightened. When it subsides, he evidently decides it was an accident, not a consequence of his behavior. (Ex. 8:11, 8:28, 9:12, 9:34-35, 10: 20.) We can hear him saying, "Stuff happens."
Moses, Aaron, and Miriam know that it is no accident. They know this because they have learned from the Voice at the Burning Bush (Ex 3:15) and then again in Egypt (Ex. 6: 2-3) that the Divine Name that can only be pronounced by simply breathing names, indeed, that which is most sacred: the Interbreathing of all life that is aroused and infused with the ruach hakodesh, the Holy Breathing Spirit of the world.
The second time the Voice reminds Moses that YHWH is the sacred Name, the Voice also acknowledges that Moses’ forebears had known the One by a different Name. But now that ancient Name is no longer adequate. If humans are to undertake a transformation in the world, then humankind must learn to transform its deepest understanding of the World, of God. God’s interactions with Pharaoh through the Ten Plagues plant the seeds of this transformative understanding.
The Plagues are brought on not by a Super-Pharaoh in the sky but by this Interbreathing that connects all life in Unity. They are the complex consequence of tyranny, which is itself the form of idolatry that tries to set itself up as a god who can triumph over the One Who breathes all life. (Ex. 7:1311:9)
This story too is echoed by the man-made disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In our own day, Carbon Pharaohs tyrannize both human communities andthe Earth itself. Both adam and adamahare equally oppressed, for in Hebrew the words themselves betoken the intertwining of ourselves and Mother Earth.
Then the Torah teaches that, of course, the Breath of Life, the Wind of Change, blows away the seeming power of the tyrant who thinks himself a god. His power dissolves into the Sea of Reeds — another form of the plant life created on the Third Day (Ex. 14: 21-22; 15: 8-10). Just as the adamah roused into life both the “shrubs of the Earth” and the adam that was necessary to their nurture as their food was necessary to adam, so too will these Reeds outlive the tyranny of those facets of adam that have run amok.
Then the Torah provides us another parable on this same theme, a story that points toward the healing of the disaster at the end of Eden. This is the parable of Manna and Shabbat. (Ex. 16) For in this story, as in Eden, the Great Provider showers adam again with almost free abundance. The only work the Israelites need to do is to walk forth every morning and gather the Manna -— a strange “vegetation” that is like coriander seed but far more nourishing.
No sweat, no toil, no thorns or thistles. Self-restraint is built-in: anyone who tries to gather more than enough to eat for a day finds that the extra rots and stinks. On the sixth day, enough Manna falls to feed the people for another day; and it does not rot. It will meet their needs for the seventh day. On the seventh day, Shabbat, no Manna falls. Self-restraint is again built in.
But this is a different kind of self-restraint. In Eden, self-restraint meant giving up a portion of delight. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was beautiful; its aroma beckoned toward a delicious taste. Who could embrace asceticism in the face of such a Tree?
Shabbat is a kind of self-restraint that itself is filled with joy and celebration. This is a new invention, and it beckons toward a way of relating with the Earth that is filled with love, not domination, and gives a fuller life to both adam and adamah.
How do we turn this parable into an active practice when we cross the river into becoming farmers? The Torah answers this question with the teaching of Shmita. (Lev. 25: 1-7) We shift from the wistful “vegetation” of the Manna to the real vegetation of the Land. We can celebrate a year-long Shabbat when we restrain ourselves from organizing the sowing and the reaping that are the necessities of ordinary agriculture. We can remember the need for shrubs and grasses to have the loving touch of human presence through our self-restraint.
Instead of subjecting the plants to our will and our work, we are to practice tzimtzum, the act of personal self-restraint in the face of another being’s need to freely grow. The Torah voices the concern of some who fear that there will not be enough to eat. And then the Torah soothes us: if we will allow the Earth to rest as the Breath of Life demands, there will be even more abundance. (Lev. 25: 18-22; 26:3-13.)
Then the Torah warns us yet again: if we refuse to let the Earth rest for the Shmita year, if we prevent the Earth from resting for its year-long Shabbat, the Earth will rest anyway – – on our heads. Through drought and famine, pestilence and plague, through an Exile that today we would call a flood of refugees – – our Mother Earth will turn away from us because we have oppressed her. (Lev. 26: 14-46, esp. vss. 34-35 and 43; II Chron. 36: 20-21)
The disasters listed in Leviticus 26 are echoed today in the predictions of climate scientists who warn us of the consequences of overworking Earth by choking its air, its Breath, by burning fossil fuels. What we call the climate crisis is indeed a crisis in the sacred Name of the God Who – – YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh. As our prayerbook teaches, “Nishmat kol chai tivarech et-shimcha, YHWH elohenu”: “The breath of all life praises Your name, Yahhh our God” – for the Name is Itself the breathing of all life, and “our” God is the deepest God not of Jews alone, not of humans alone, but of all life. That is why YHWH is Echad, ONE.
Shmita is the Torah's effort to teach us a path of practical peace in the human community and between the Earth — especially its crops, its vegetation — and human earthlings. And then our sacred writings reach once more beyond the practical to lift up a vision of that peace made whole. In the Song of Songs, we see and hear and smell and taste the Garden for grown-ups. Eden for a grown-up human race. Earth is playful, joyful, freely giving forth the nuts and fruits of the Third Day. Apples and apricots, almonds and raisins, the wine that flows from grapes and the spices that grow in our gardens —= these forms of vegetation permeate the Garden of the Song.
We notice that in this poem of maturity, the Song does not mention eating animals. The fruits and nuts, the wine and spices, seem to be enough. This is the diet of the Tu B’Shvat Seder in its celebration of the ultimate vegetation, the Tree of Life. It is the recipe for charoset, the innermost kashrut of the specially liberating kosher foods of liberated Pesach. Thes fruits and nuts are the diet of the Garden, where no life – not even a carrot or a horse-radish, ripped from the Earth, needs to be killed in order to be eaten.
In the Song, we humans have learned to love the Earth, not dominate it; and in turn the Earth loves us. The disaster that came from trying to tyrannize the Garden has been assuaged.
And the second disaster that emerges from the human effort to dominate our Mother Earth has in the Song been cured as well. No longer do men rule over women. The Song beyond all Songs shows us the free and loving interplay of men and women, shows us a poetry led and probably written by a woman, shows us a sexuality that is free and bold and joyful – – not shameful as it came to be in Eden. A sexuality that is not severed from the Spirit but united with It-- so that we do not have to choose between seeing the Song as an allegory of love between God and Humankind, or as a celebration of love between human beings – but can see the Song as both, and One. Can hear its entire text as the Name of God, that would be disrupted if a lesser Name intruded.
The story of Eden is a tale of children growing into rebellious adolescence — eating what they please and as much as they please, rejecting the sage advice of Parents in order to grow into adulthood -- but an adulthood of drudgery and hierarchy.
T Torah teaches us that we have still more space and time to grow. The Song of Songs beckons us to becoming a fully grown-up human race. In Eden, Papa-Mama God commands us. In the Song of Songs, the Name of God nowhere appears. Like grown-ups, we have absorbed the wisest teachings of our parents and have grown an ethic of our own. An ethic of love.
In this ethic, the spiritual, the edible, and the erotic are interwoven. Even the yearnings of Isaiah are transcended.
Keyn yehi ratzon! -— May we and the Interbreathing of all life conspire to make it so. May we who bear the Spirit, who breathe the Breath, who bless the fruit of the trees and the fruit of the Earth as we taste them, make it so.
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center <https://theshalomcenter.org>. In 2014 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award as Human Rights Hero from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. In 2015 the Forward named him one of the “most inspiring” Rabbis.
His 22 books address the history of US race relations, foreign policy, military strategy, energy policy, and religious thought and practice. His most recent book is Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman. His most recent arrests of about 23 were in a protest at the White House on climate policy, and at the US Capitol calling for Congressional action to renew democratic process in election campaigns, both at the level of hyperwealth flooding campaigns and at the level of voter suppression. See also Waskow’s pioneering essay, “Jewish Environmental Ethics: Adam and Adamah,” in Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).