Parashat Breishit 5782 - Regenerating our Relationship with Soil

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

"The soil is cursed because of you," (Gen. 2:17). So says the opening portion of the Torah. Through living out of balance with the ecosystem of the Garden of Eden, by abandoning the responsibility and imperative to "protect it and to serve it," the first humans in the mythic narrative of the Book of Genesis suffer incredible consequences of their actions - the soil itself becomes "cursed."

In his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi David Kimhi (12th-13th century Provence) writes: "Lacking goodness, it would not always bring out a full measure - there would be sowing but not necessarily harvesting." And it's true. Land stewards of all varieties know, just because you put a seed in the ground does not mean that there will certainly be a plant grown to maturity making produce. This is one of the reasons there is no blessing in the religious Jewish tradition for planting seeds, because when we plant we simply do not know if the seed will germinate and the sprout will grow; and even if the sprout grows, if it will survive and mature.

One of the most important tasks of farmers today is to reverse years and years of destructive practices that have depleted our soil throughout the world. Degenerated soil is more susceptible to erosion is dispersal - the rate at which top soil is being lost throughout the world should be alarming to everyone who eats food (which is all of us). In the short-term, continuing to deplete soil leads to less nutritious food which makes humans more susceptible to illness and disease, as well as supply chain disruption as foods are unavailable for distribution. In the long-term, soil depletion is a major contributor to climate change and soil erosion is one of the more widespread features of climate crisis. But, it is not just the job of the farmer or land steward to regenerate soil; rather, it becomes a responsibility of each and every one of us.

One of the more controversial ideas presented in the Creation story in the Book of Genesis, and one of the most widely misunderstood and misapplied, is the concept of "dominion." In the first chapter of Genesis describing the mythic creation of the universe, it says: "The Divine blessed [the humans] and the Divine said to them: Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; dominate the fish of the sea, the fowl of the heavens, and all life crawling on the earth," (Gen. 1:28). While this is often read as a directive, what if it is meant to express an unfortunate truth about human nature? What if it is a mournful acknowledgment of the ways in which we prioritize our desires over the earth's needs? What if the Torah is teaching us that while this is a part of our nature, if we entertain this mindset it will have damaging repercussions beyond our control? What happens when we read this verse with this interpretation alongside the story of the Garden of Eden and see these juxtaposed narratives as a cautionary tale of the contrast between human nature and the balanced ecosystems of the planet?

Midrash Kohelet Rabbah teaches:

בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, נְטָלוֹ וְהֶחֱזִירוֹ עַל כָּל אִילָנֵי גַּן עֵדֶן, וְאָמַר לוֹ, רְאֵה מַעֲשַׂי כַּמָּה נָאִים וּמְשֻׁבָּחִין הֵן, וְכָל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתִי בִּשְׁבִילְךָ בָּרָאתִי, תֵּן דַּעְתְּךָ שֶׁלֹא תְקַלְקֵל וְתַחֲרִיב אֶת עוֹלָמִי, שֶׁאִם קִלְקַלְתָּ אֵין מִי שֶׁיְתַקֵּן אַחֲרֶיךָ

When the Holy Blessed One created the first human, God took them and brought them around all of the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to them: See my acts, how wonderful and praiseworthy they are! Everything I created, it was for your sake that I created it; so you must give your consciousness not to ruin or destroy my world, because if you do ruin it, there will be nobody else to fix it after you.

The word in Hebrew that is translated as "dominate," also implies 'treading upon' or 'scraping out.' It seems, then, that the Torah is acknowledging that part of human nature is to impose our will and in doing so destroy creation. However, in the middle of Parashat Breishit we also read the story of Cain and Abel - the infamous mythic narrative of the first murder. When Cain is confronted about his jealous anger, the Torah says that God informs him: "If you act with goodness there is uplift, but if you do not act with goodness, at your opening misstep will crouch; towards you will be its urge, but you can overcome it," (Gen. 4:7). Immediately following this passage, Cain murders his brother and when confronting him, God exclaims: "The voice of the blood of your brother cries out to me from the ground," (Gen. 4:10). The urge to be destructive impacts our very relationship with the soil.

The Hebrew word for human, adam, is not the name of the first human but a description of its origin, from adamah. The word for blood, dam, also comes from this root word. The relationship between humanity and soil is coded into our very being, our very essence. When we sit outside our integrity, when we give precedence to our (often selfish and/or self-serving) desire rather than the needs of the earth, we allow for our most base inclinations to master us, and not the other way around. Yet we do have the ability to use our creative energies to reverse destruction. We can build our soil.

At Yesod Farm+Kitchen we are dedicated to regenerating our soil. As land stewards we view this as perhaps the most fundamental aspect of our work. What can those of us do to protect and serve the soil even if we are not land stewards? First and foremost, support local farmers who engage in sustainable or regenerative practices. Be in relationship with your food producers, and leverage whatever resources you might have towards ensuring healthy and dynamic soil for future generations to come. Find local farmers markets and CSAs. Plant a garden. Learn to preserve food. Share with your neighbors. Regenerate the soil, regenerate ourselves, and regenerate our communities. May we all act with goodness and master our destructive urges in pursuit of protecting and serving the soil itself

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