The Eco-Torah of an Indigenous People
[This article will appear in a collection on Creation to be published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2017.]
In the Torah’s first story of Creation, 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, Torah invokes the need for shrubs and grasses to have the loving touch of human presence as the reason to birth the human race. Indeed, it is 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,” this “hei” – it must take its first independent breath. Perhaps someone taps the newborn’s tush – and s/he begins to breathe.
This biologic process is the very model for the Torah’s story of how adam is born from adamah – from Mother Earth.
Born into the Garden of Delight. One of the myriad ways to understand the parable of Eden is that YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, 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 is vegetation from the third day of Creation: a tree. And 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 lives, the story warns us, with the sweat pouring down our faces, will we find enough to eat from an Earth that gives forth mostly thorns and thistles. (Gen 2: 17-19) And one other disaster comes as a result: the subjugation of women to men. (Gen. 2: 16)
In our own lives, we relived the first 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 and a disastrous damage to the overflowing abundance of the Gulf.
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 a last 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, the sacred Inter-breathing of all life, we will ruin the abundance of the planet as a whole.
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 affects the Earth itself. (Most of the Plagues strike at the vegetation that arises from the fertile Nile.) When each Plague comes, at first Pharaoh is frightened. When it subsides, he decides it was an accident – – "Stuff happens." (Ex.
Moses, Aaron, and Miriam know that it was 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. 2-3) that YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Divine Name that can only be pronounced by simply breathing, names indeed what is most sacred: the Interbreathing of all life.
The second time the Voice reminds Moses that YyyyHhhhWwwwHhh 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.
The Plagues are brought on not by a Super-Pharaoh in the sky but by this Interbreathing that connects all life in Unity. By the complex consequence of tyranny -- idolatry that tries to set itself up as a god who can triumph over the One Who breathes all life. (Ex. 7:13 through 11:9)
This story too is echoed by what happened in the Gulf of Mexico. In our own day, Carbon Pharaohs oppress both human communities and Earth. Both adam and adamah, 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. (Ex. 14: 21-22; 15: 8-10)
And then the Torah gives us another parable, 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 now the universe showers us again with almost free abundance. The only work we 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 and 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 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 shepherds and farmers? The Torah answers this question with the teaching of Shmita. (Lev. 25: 1-7) 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. 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.)
And 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. (Ex 26: 14-46, esp. vss. 34-35 and 43; II Chron. 36: 20-21)
The disasters listed in Exodus 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 God – – YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh.
Shmita is the Torah's effort to teach us a path of practical peace in the human community and between the Earth 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 and of Eden. We humans have learned to love the earth, not dominate it.
And the second disaster of the event has 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.
If the story of Eden is a tale of children growing into rebellious adolescence and then into an adulthood of drudgery and hierarchy, then 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. An ethic in which the spiritual and the erotic are interwoven, in which even the yearnings of Isaiah are transcended.
Keyn yehi ratzon—May we make it so. May we who bear the Spirit, breathe the Breath, make it so.