The people and the book: Turn the Barren Place into Eden

The weekly portion Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) is read on Shabbat, October 2

Eve abstract (do not publish again) (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Eve abstract (do not publish again)
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
IN A GENERATION when the web of life on Earth is in profound danger, when human intervention is wounding that web and with it the patterns of human community and prosperity, we may see a new facet of the story of Eden, the Garden of Delight.
The story begins by pointing us toward the close relationship between the human race and Earth: “And YHWH [the name of God that can only be pronounced by breathing with no vowels, thus “Yahhh, Breath of Life”] formed the adam [human earthling] from the adamah [humus-earth] and blew into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human-earthling became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) I have inserted these odd translations of adam and adamah in order to highlight the interrelationship between the two words that the Torah – indeed, the Hebrew language itself – teaches so simply. Indeed, in English the word “earthling” means “human being” and the word “humus” means a kind of earth, but each is a highly specialized word.
What adam and adamah teach is deeply different from what the word “environment,” which we use so often nowadays, teaches. The “environment” is in the “environs” – out there, separate from us. The very words adam and adamah are intertwined and should teach us not only about language but about the reality that language tries to word.
And as if the bare words might still not be enough to teach us, the Torah then explicitly says that we were deeply intertwined at the earthy birthing of the human race. In moving from earthiness to humanness, we lost the “ah” – a breath-sound – at the end of adamah and received from God a more conscious, independent breathing.
This replicates the process of each human birth – indeed, each mammal’s birth: at first the fetus has an unconscious gift of breath from the mother through the placenta, loses this breath upon birth, then regains a separate, more conscious breath – for humans, often by a tap from an attending adult.
What we know from our own experiences with birth, says the Torah, we should understand is true about our species’ origins and our continuing relationship with Mother Earth.
And then we proceed to the story of Eden.
God – the Truth and Reality of life – says to the human couple who together make up the human race: “Here there is overflowing abundance.
Eat of it, of every tree of the Garden, in joy! But you must also learn selfrestraint.
Do not gobble up all this abundance. The fruit of one tree you must not eat.” But they abandon self-restraint; they eat of the one tree they have been told to leave uneaten.
And their greed ruins the abundance. So, says God, Reality, they must work with the sweat pouring down their faces just to wring from the earth enough to eat, for it will give forth thorns and thistles.
Did God, or Reality, rejoice at this reminder that actions bear consequences? Hardly. God wails, “Ayekka? Where are you?” – which rabbinic midrash understands as the first “Eicha,” the word that begins the Book of Lamentations about our exile when the Temple was destroyed. The first exile was the exile of adam, humankind, from adamah, the earth.
This ancient archetypal story is the story of today. The story of the BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in May, for example: Corporate greed rejecting self-restraint brought on disaster. It is also the story of the drought and fires in Russia, the floods in Pakistan.
The human race, led by Big Oil and Big Coal, is ruining our abundant earth, scorching it into an unheard-of climate crisis.
Yet there are ways to redress this disaster. It happens, says the story of the Wilderness, just after the Breath of Life frees ancient Israelites from the power-greedy pharaoh who enslaves humans and brings plagues upon the Earth. The first discovery of these runaway slaves is the Shabbat that comes with manna – a taste of rest from endless toil and a gift from the abundant earth. The curse reversed, a taste of Eden.
Says Isaiah (51:3): “You turn the barren place to Eden, and the desert to a garden breathing Life.” But only if we act to free adam and adamah from domination by the pharaohs of our day.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of The Shalom Center, is the author of ‘Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life’ and (forthcoming) ‘Freedom Journeys: The Tales of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia.’