Jacob left Beersheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And Adonai was standing beside him and He said, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. (Genesis 28:10-13)
These are the opening verses of this week’s parsha, Vayetzei. Jacob dreams of a stairway rooted in the earth and reaching the very heavens, with angels going up and down. And when he wakes, he exclaims, “God was in this place, and I — I did not know!” What an amazing story of spiritual awakening. And this isn’t just something that happened to “him” back “then” — it also happens to us now. We fall spiritually asleep, and then something wakes us into wonder.
This has long been one of my favorite stories in Torah. This year, though, I’m reading it through new eyes — thanks to our speaker on Wednesday night.
Rabbi Ellen Bernstein is the founder of Shomrei Adamah (“Keepers of the Earth”), the very first Jewish environmental organization, which came into being 30 years ago. She came to CBI to speak about her new haggadah, The Promise of the Land, which offers an earth-centered and environmentally-focused path through the Passover seder.
And one of the first things she said blew my mind. The Hebrew word aretz — land, earth, ground — appears 2000 times in the Hebrew scriptures. Often, when we think of “land” in Torah and Jewish tradition, we think of one specific land — Israel. But what happens if we broaden our sense of aretz to mean all land — every land — in other words, the whole earth?
Torah has clear instructions for how we’re supposed to treat the land. Torah tells us to care for the land in specific ways, and to behave ethically in specific ways, lest the land spit us out. Seen through the lens of a specific piece of land, those teachings are instructions about how to care for that land, and how to treat each other in that land, lest we become a stateless people again.
But if we read those verses as a teaching about not just that land, but all land — the whole earth on which we live, the planet that is not only “my land” or “your land” but everyone’s land — and in fact is truly God’s land, lent to us only as long as we can care for it responsibly…? Then Torah feels unspeakably prescient. We need to do right by the earth, or the earth will spit us out.
Treat the land with respect. Don’t pillage the land. Give back to the land, let the land rest, don’t suck all the resources out of the land. Treat the land properly. Treat each other properly and ethically. Don’t poison and pollute our community life or our home. Because if we do, the land will spit us out — the earth will become uninhabitable. Is this sounding familiar?
Granted, Torah doesn’t say the planet will warm beyond repair, the ice caps will melt, the seas will rise, the farming systems will fail. Torah doesn’t speak in scientific terms. Torah uses the language of ethics and morality, the language of poem and story. Torah just says, “do what’s right, or the earth will spit you out.” But any newspaper today can give us the horrifying details.
In this week’s parsha, Jacob dreams of a ladder rooted in the earth ascending all the way to the heavens, with angels going up and down. And in Jacob’s dream, God is right there with him. God says: the ground on which you are lying is yours to care for. Or as Rabbi Bernstein teaches, this entire earth is yours to care for, you and your generations. This planet is in your hands.
Later in his story, Jacob, “the Heel,” will gain the new name Yisrael. We are his spiritual descendants, the children of Israel. Like our ancestor, we’re spiritually asleep a lot of the time. This week’s parsha invites us to wake into wonder. To see the holiness of this place. To recognize that “we’ve got the whole earth / in our hands” and that it’s our job to protect it and give back to it.
In early 2020, we’ll be forming the CBI Green Team: a group of congregants, clergy, and staff committed to mitigating the effects of climate change and making climate justice and preservation of the earth core values of our community. The earth is in our hands. Let’s wake up to God’s presence in every holy place, and together take care of this earth, our irreplaceable home.
This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI on Shabbat, offered with gratitude to Rabbi Ellen Bernstein for her teaching and her wisdom. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)