Turn the Barren Place to Eden: The Earth Gives Birth to the Human Race

Parshat Bereshit


In a generation when human intervention is deeply wounding the web of life on Earth 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 the Earth:

“And YHWH [the Name of God that can only be pronounced by breathing with no vowels] formed the adam [human earthling] from the adamah [humus-earth] and blew into her/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 heighten in English the interrelationship that Torah — indeed, the Hebrew language itself — teaches so simply. Indeed, we do have in English the word “earthling” to mean “human being” and the word “humus” to mean a kind of earth, but each of them is a highly specialized word.

What adam and adamah teach is deeply different from what the word “environment” 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 they 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.

Notice that in moving from earthiness to humanness, the human lost the “ah” — a breath-sound — at the end of adamah, and then received from God a more conscious independent breathing.

This replicates the process of each human birth — indeed, each mammal’s birth — in which at first the fetus has an unconscious gift of breath from mother through the placenta; loses this breath as s/he is born; and regains a separate, more conscious breath — for humans, often by a tap from an attending adult.

What we know from our own experience in every individual birth, says Torah, we should understand is true about our species’ origins and our continuing relationship with Mother Earth.

And Torah proceeds to the story of Eden, which this year will be read on Oct. 29.

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 self-restraint. 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 Gulf of Mexico. The story of rapacious Big Oil desecrating the graves and poisoning the water of the Sioux Nation in North Dakota, to drive a pipeline though native land and release more fumes of carbon dioxide and methane to burn our Mother Earth. Our modern corporate carbon pharaohs in their greed bring plagues upon humanity and the Earth, rejecting self-restraint: super-droughts in California and Australia and Syria and central Africa, unheard-of floods in Pakistan and North Carolina, superstorms in the Philippines and the Jersey shore.

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 ancient power-greedy pharaoh. The first discovery of these runaway slaves is the Shabbat that comes with manna — a gift from the abundant earth and a taste of rest from endless toil — a new form of self-restraint that is filled with joy, rather than ascetic self-denial. The curse reversed. A taste of Eden once again.

Says Isaiah (51:3): “Vayasem midbarah k’eden v’arvatah k’gan Yahh. 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, Ph.D., founded  and directs The Shalom Center. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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