In the Beginning…
Our spiritual ties to nature date back to Genesis.
by Nina Beth Cardin
The Jewish people are known as the People of the Book. But the Book that defines us, that is our heritage and our destiny, tells us we are also the people of the land. From Eden to Israel, from our love poetry to our agricultural laws, from the prayers we recite to the Revelation at Sinai—our spirits have been fashioned by the landscapes of our lives.
This bond begins in the first name we are called: adam. Genesis 2 says, “The Lord God formed the human, adam, from the earth, adamah.” Adam is not a proper name here, but a noun signifying all humanity. We are all adam, for we all come from adamah. Hebrew has two words for land: eretz (as in eretz Israel) and adamah. Eretz is land that defines a country and a people. It has borders and politics, those who belong and those who don’t. Adamah is soil, dirt, earth, the stuff you plow or pick up in your hands. Its borders are Earth itself, and there is no one who does not belong.
In the Bible, the land, adamah, in all its majestic wonder, with its peaks and valleys, oceans and deserts, thistles and roses, is not just the stage on which human history is played out. It is a character in the Bible’s unfolding sacred narrative.
Consider these three essential roles that this adamah and the natural world of ours play in the stories of the Bible.
It is our calling to take care of the land so that the land can always take care of us.
First, the world, created by God, was given to us to cherish and tend. We did not make it or earn it or set sail to discover it like explorers of old. We were gifted it. We were created and placed here to enjoy it and take care of it. That is our task. That is, the Bible tells us, God’s plan. The rabbis embellish the story this way: “When God finished creating the first adam,” they say, “God took him and led him around all the garden, showing him all the trees, and said to him: See how lovely and awesome is the world I have made. Know that everything I created is here for you. Be mindful not to ruin and destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13). We were created to be partners with God, endowed with sentience to admire all that God wrought, awed by the unfathomable majesty of the Earth, and tasked with the responsibility of taking care of it.
Second, the Bible portrays the natural world as the medium, the currency, the vocabulary with which God speaks to us and we, in turn, speak to God. When God wished to bestow gifts on us, God did so through the bounty of nature. The land of Israel, Deuteronomy tells the Jews as they stand on the banks of the Jordan, is not like the land of Egypt. The land of Israel flows with milk and honey. It is made of hills and valleys, and it drinks from the water of the rain of heaven.
We recite words from Deuteronomy daily in the second paragraph of the Shema, showing God’s blessings in the currency of nature: If the people of Israel heed God’s commandments, and love God, then “I will favor the land with rain in its season, the autumn rain and the spring rain, and you will gather in ample harvest of grain and wine and oil. And I will give grass in the fields for your cattle, enough for them to eat and be satisfied.” And we the people responded with our sacrifices, gifts from our harvest and the first-born of our herds. We were asked in kind to be godly and to repay God for God’s goodness through the goodness of nature, by giving to the poor, the needy and the stranger from the corners of our fields and offering a tenth of our harvest to those without. Even today, we are not permitted to eat until we thank God for the different kinds of food we are given: those that grow from the land, and those that grow from the tree; those that grow on the vine and those cooked up by us from a variety of sources. We thank God every morning for bodies that work, eyes that can see, backs that stand straight. We thank God, too, for the universe that stays its course, allowing us to gather from it all that we need.
Third, the natural world is God’s revelation, proof of God’s caring presence. The Bible continually reminds us that though we can never see God, we know God through God’s handiwork. The rabbis celebrate this, asking us to recite blessings upon witnessing these shadows of God’s presence. Upon seeing the ocean, we praise God for fashioning the great seas. Upon seeing some majesty of nature, the mountains, a shooting star or a jaw-dropping sunset, we praise God for renewing the work of creation. Upon seeing trees in spring bring forth buds of renewal, we praise God, saying, “Blessed are you whose world lacks nothing, and who created magnificent creatures and gracious trees that we humans may benefit from them.”
It is through these witnesses in nature that we can more deeply feel the presence of a Power beyond us. When Job seeks an answer to his unbearable suffering and calls upon God to answer, God responds with witnesses to the depths of nature’s mysteries: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations…and set its cornerstone? Who closed the sea behind its doors when it gushed forth…when I clothed it in clouds and swaddled it in mist? Have you ever commanded the day to break, assigned the dawn to its place…penetrated the vaults of the snow, seen the storehouses of hail?”
This questioning goes on for 60 verses, at the end of which Job is humbled. Though he doesn’t understand, he is oddly comforted by being part of a universe that is so much bigger than he, so much larger than he can comprehend. We are the People of the Book. But also the people of the land. We are the people of Israel and the denizens of the earth. No matter where we are, we are adam of the adamah. It is our calling to take care of the land so that the land can always take care of us. And it is in these quotidian tasks that we can ultimately find our most sacred calling.
(Originally published in spring 2013.)
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is the founder and executive director of the Baltimore Orchard Project, an organization dedicated to growing, gleaning and giving away urban fruit to those in need. She is also the founder and director of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, an organization dedicated to greening the Baltimore Jewish community. A 1988 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, she co-founded the Jewish Women’s Resource Center and the National Center for Jewish Healing. She served for five years as editor of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility and is author of many books and articles, including The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Life-Cycle Events and Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss.