Is the world coming to an end? The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the latest Pandora-like circumstance to plague mankind. Except Pandora opened her box out of curiosity while BP drilled the depths of the sea with greed and recklessness, cutting corners in the production and in failing in subsequent attempts at capping the eruption. Every day brings me deeper feelings of despair at the state of the world. Perhaps a Jewish lens on this epic oil leak and man-made catastrophe will lend the issue some perspective. Any thoughts?
Just when we thought it would be safe to watch the nightly news again, what with the economic crisis in a supposed recovery and the world looking possibly less bleak — here we are with perhaps the most uncontainable and unruly situation ever. No amount of resources, bailouts, taxes, Congressional hearings, peace-keeping forces, speeches, or negotiations will get us out of this one. People so undeserving of the consequences of this drilling fiasco are losing livelihood, fish and wildlife are being destroyed along with who knows how many ecosystems.
And here we are with nothing to do but watch it all unfold in slow motion. Oil and tar are slowly washing up on beaches further and further from the original site of the imploded rig. We are all feeling the frustration, dismay and futility. Who could have seen this coming?
A close reader of the Torah might have had a clue. Sadly, the headline “Human actions destroy world” is not unique to the Gulf Coast oil spill. There is nothing new under the sun. We humans have been wreaking havoc with our world from the get-go.
Consider this early series of hair-raising tales from Bereshit:
Scene One: Creation. God plants a garden in Eden, places the first human into its midst, and causes every beautiful tree to grow delicious for his very consumption. In spite of this, immediately upon being put in this abundantly lush garden, the Torah tells us that Adam, paying no heed to the single command of God — to not eat of the Tree of Knowledge, tastes of the forbidden fruit and causes an immediate diminution of the workings of the world.
And unto Adam He said: “Because you have hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying: ‘You shall not eat of it;’ cursed is the ground on your account; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles will it bring forth for you; and you shall eat the herb of the field.”
What? Adam and Eve, the two humans on the planet, commit the act of eating of the Tree of Knowledge and as a result the earth is cursed on their account? The good earth that God has created has now suddenly, as a result of man’s actions, become downgraded — it will not yield produce freely nor bear fruit without struggle. It will take human sweat to flourish. Furthermore, the fruit itself will come along with thorn and thistle — falling short of some original perfection now forever lost to us. At first this glance this seems neither fair nor logical.
But that is the very point of this first essential lesson to mankind. Don’t cross lines. Do not take what is not yours and seemingly out of your reach. The powerful, as-yet-unlearned basic core lesson: Not everything on this earth is for human consumption. Some say this original command of not eating of the tree is a foreshadowing of the laws of kashrut, which come as well to teach that not everything is ours to consume.
Scene Two: A field, east of Eden. Brother murders brother as rabid jealousy leads to bloodshed. Cain cannot bear the pain of being outdone by his brother. God’s look of favor upon Abel leads to the very first fratricide. Again, the earth is grippingly dragged into the drama.
And now cursed are you from the ground, which has opened her mouth to receive your brother’s blood from thy hand. When you tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto you her strength; a fugitive and a wanderer shall thou be in the earth.
A fascinating twist of events. Cain’s punishment bleeds into his environment. The punishment for fratricide is not limited to perpetrator alone. It is visited upon its accessory to the crime, the earth, which had opened up its mouth to accept the blood of Abel. Really? Can there be an authentic culpability in passive soil? They are far from being co-conspirators. Cain has murdered. The inanimate mud beneath the feet of Abel cannot help but reflexively swallow up the blood that pours forth. Is it fair that its yield is permanently crippled as a result of man’s murderous envy?
There seems to be, between human beings and the earth from whence they have been formed, a profound, inescapable symbiotic link: “Adam,” “adamah,” earthling, earth. Humans commit atrocities and the soil beneath his very feet cannot help but bear the burden. Man murders and his timeless partner suffers as a result. A mighty lesson.
Scene Three: Mount Ararat. The gig is up. Man’s deeds again have led to crushing results for the world.
But in the aftermath of the flood, the Lord smelled the sweet savor; and the Lord said in His heart: “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite everything living, as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”
This three-stage progression in Bereshit draws a clear inextricable link between the earth and man’s actions. These two first parshiyot of the Torah were to have provided us with an obvious object lesson for perpetuity and a cautionary tale to have animated the depths of our consciousness. The first human eats of the tree — now there must be toil and sweat, fratricide leads to diminishing returns in all efforts put forth on the farm, and, finally, man’s evil deeds affect the entire world as it is wiped away with water spilling out from above and below.
Some might say that these words, these core ideas, have been forgotten. As greed continues to take hold of each of us, we consumers share in the culpability of our manic drive for energy and our continued addiction to a life of luxury fueled by comforts and lifestyles that our own grandparents could never have dreamed of.
A murky summer lurks as we continue to bear witness as this latest “man-earth” travesty unfolds with these words of Koheleth Rabbah echoing in our mind:
When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first man, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘“Behold My works, how beautiful and commendable they are! All that I have created, for your sake I created it. Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy My universe for if you corrupt it there is no one to repair it after you.”