Shabbat Bereshit: The Fate of the Earth

The curse of farming, or, not all who wander are wrong

On this Shabbat we begin all over again with Bereshit, a recounting of the ancient legends our people  knew about how human life began. 

Interestingly, some of the first stories make no sense to us. We are mystified by HaShem’s choice of Abel’s offering over Cain’s. For that matter, why is it such a big deal if we eat of a tree of knowledge of good and evil? Aren’t we supposed to know the difference, and isn’t that distinguishing at the heart of our Jewish ethics?

Comparisons to other origin stories of the ancient Near East shed some light, sometimes. Just as our creation myth depicts a divinity creating the world out of an abyss of water and darkness, others local goddesses and gods create the world out of something – for instance, the origin myth of Ugarit details the murder of the Mother Goddess by her son, who fashions mountains from her breasts, and the sea from her tears. 

Where reason ends, mysticism and midrash sometimes find a deeper sense of meaning. Based on a midrashic understanding, the great Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague (mistakenly considered the creator of the golem) suggested that human beings were meant to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, because until we sinned – by doing so, against HaShem’s edict – we could not know what good and evil are. 

One of the mysteries we confront in this week’s parashah is this: why is farming a curse? We see it expressed three times, once in the punishment HaShem ordains for eating of the tree in Eden:

וְק֥וֹץ וְדַרְדַּ֖ר תַּצְמִ֣יחַֽ לָ֑ךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ אֶת־עֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃

Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you, 

yet your food shall be the grasses of the field

בְּזֵעַ֤ת אַפֶּ֙יךָ֙ תֹּ֣אכַל לֶ֔חֶם עַ֤ד שֽׁוּבְךָ֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה כִּ֥י מִמֶּ֖נָּה לֻקָּ֑חְתָּ כִּֽי־עָפָ֣ר אַ֔תָּה וְאֶל־עָפָ֖ר תָּשֽׁוּב׃

By the sweat of your brow 

Shall you get bread to eat,

Until you return to the ground—

For from it you were taken.

For dust you are,

And to dust you shall return. (Bereshit 3.18-19)*

The second time is at the birth of Noah, whose parents say:

וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ נֹ֖חַ לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֞֠ה יְנַחֲמֵ֤נוּ מִֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֙נוּ֙ וּמֵעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרְרָ֖הּ יְהֹוָֽה׃

This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, 

out of the very soil which HaShem placed under a curse. (Bereshit 5.29)

The third instance is in the very rejection of Cain’s agricultural offering and the acceptance of Abel’s shepherd’s offering. Clearly, farming is a cursed existence – yet our sources do not understand why.

Of all things! – the book Ishmael that I invited you to read during Elul of this past year, as we prepared spiritually for the High Holy Days, offers us an interesting insight. The reason that we do not understand these stories is that by the time that the Torah becomes our sacred text, we have given ourselves entirely over to the existential narrative that our lives are to be based upon farming the soil. 

Of course, this leads to the impossibility of the shemitta year which has now begun; every seventh year we are commanded by Torah to let the land rest. The idea seems unreasonable – in much the same way it seems unreasonable to let ourselves rest every seventh day. 

Is there a correlation between the state of a human body when it is deprived of rest and the state of the earth deprived of rest? What, perhaps, might we have to learn the hard way if we cannot do what we are commanded out of ancient wisdom to do?

If you have not yet had the chance to read Ishmael I still recommend it. Or you can read the archeological studies indicating that the first farmers experienced heightened hardship and lowered life expectancy; and the discovery that a major spiritual gathering site in Turkey was not created after farming reached that region, forcing scholars to re-consider the orthodoxy that civilization is necessarily a by-product of farming.

As we begin again with Bereshit, may we remember that every bit of Torah has seventy different possible interpretations, according to Jewish tradition – and that which we do not yet understand is not necessarily either unreasonable or ignored by those who seek wisdom by which to live. We’ve eaten from that tree, we are what we are, and it’s vital that we use the capacity we have to distinguish good from evil, and truth from myth.


*I’ve left the text in the original poetic format, to emphasize the antiquity of the passage (Biblical scholarship has established that the poetic passages in the Torah are the most ancient, and most clearly indicative of its original oral transmission.

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