Two centuries ago William Wordsworth wrote:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Two years ago Ellen Bernstein, founder of Shomrei Adamah wrote:
Since the environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis, a sign of separation from nature and our selves, we must mend the division and fix the brokenness at the root.(p. 13, The Splendor of Creation, Pilgrim Press, 2005)
But how do we, as Wordsworth might put it, get our hearts back? What might lead us back from the brink of devastating separation from the rest of the world?
For one down-to-earth answer we can go to the middle of Genesis, straight to Jacob’s family homestead in Be’er Sheva, with the caveat that such an earth-centered point of reference may loosen the soil around some conventional readings of the text and expose different roots of the story.
We meet Jacob at the moment of his birth, following right on the heels of his twin Esau. It doesn’t take long before we find him using his guile to secure Esau’s birthright for himself in exchange for a lentil stew served up to his famished twin. (If our ears incline toward puns, we can hear the adjective akov—crooked, deceitful—embedded in his Hebrew name Ya’akov, and yashar—straight, upright—in his future name Yisrael.) Esau’s been outdoors hunting game; Jacob’s been hanging out at home cooking something tame.
In fact, this passage begins with a description of Esau as an outdoorsman (literally, an ish sadeh—a man of the field) while Jacob is described as an ish tam, (more about this in our next installment) who liked to sit around the tents (yoshev ohalim, as Gen. 25:27 puts it). At this point in the story Jacob is someone we’d probably call a homebody.
After this incident, however, the story shifts abruptly to a famine, the kind of experience that starts in the gut and ends up in the soul. Small wonder that, years later, when their father Isaac is old and blind, he sends his reliable provider, Esau, out to the fields for the kind of nourishing food that may give him enough strength to give this most beloved son a final blessing. But Isaac’s wife Rebekah, as we know, is bent on taking her sons’ destinies into her own hands.
And without ever leaving the farm, Jacob becomes an accomplice in his mother’s plan to secure her red-cheeked Esau’s blessing for her pale second-born. Jacob obediently fetches two young goats, but it’s his mother who presumably slaughters them, and it is she, we are told, who cooks the meat, seasons it to taste like game, and turns the skins into a rough disguise for her smooth-skinned boy.
The trick works well enough: Isaac, fooled or not, ends up giving the impostor the kind of end-of-a-lifetime blessing that perhaps only someone whose life has been deeply marked by hunger can give. This coveted blessing begins:
May God give you from the dew of the heavens and from the fat of the earth, [as well as] an abundance of grain and new wine. (Genesis 27:28)
No wonder Rebekah schemes to make sure that this son, this less than self-sufficient mama’s boy, receives his father’s blessing so that he’ll always have a constant supply of food when his parents are gone.
The story picks up even more speed when Esau returns with red meat and discovers he has been tricked, once again, out of what is rightfully his. So for protection from Esau’s blazing anger, Jacob is soon hustled by his mother out of Be’er Sheva toward his uncle’s home in Haran across the mountains.
Picture Jacob now: he’s probably never been much beyond the pens and pastures of home, never roamed in the open, never hunted or fished for his dinner, never befriended or evaded an animal in the wild. It’s hardly a surprise to learn from the text that the sun has already set before he’s figured out where and how to sleep that night.
But somehow he manages to do this, with his over-heated head on a cold stone and his aching body stretched out on the chilly ground. And then what a dream he has! A dream about a ladder anchored to the ground and angels (earthly angels?) who first go up and then come down. A dream with a promise embedded in it, too, a very earth-bound promise of fecundity and blessing, protection and homecoming to that land.
Yes, Jacob’s mind sees spirit messengers and hears a message from the other world that night, but only after his body first touches the earth with no mediating carpets or furs, furniture or bedclothes in between him and the ground. Indeed, it is only after his own inner ladder—the backbone that connects a person’s most basic physical needs and desires to the workings of the mind and which first must pass by the heart—only when his very own spine rests on the earth can he dream of a ladder, a sort of spiritual spine, that connects a particular place on earth with its counterpart above.
And we know that when he wakes up, he has this to say:
God was in this place and I—I didn’t know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than God’s [very] dwelling place…. (Genesis 28:16-17)
So here, flat on his back and utterly alone in the Judean hills, something life-changing begins to happen to this only-recently-sprung stay-at-home. We know from the rest of Jacob’s story that he never loses his keen intellect. Some time later, for instance, he’ll benefit enormously from his knowledge of animal breeding, creating for himself a fine sturdy flock in the midst of his uncle’s mediocre one.
But little by little something softens that very intellect that had heretofore been used, as far as we know, only to outwit his brother and father. Something tempers his craftiness and unbends his crookedness until finally he is ready to come home—a self-made man of immense agricultural wealth, that is to say, earth-wealth—and reconcile with his brother, first claiming a new name and identity during his famous wresting match with the Unnamed One.
We can think about the story from this environmental perspective as we look for solutions to the great spiritual crisis of our time. When was the last time most of us lay down on a rocky patch of earth or rolled in her grasses feeling held by her enormity? Or, if our physical limitations don’t allow these things, when was the last time someone picked up her sweet pungent soil for us and held it to our noses?
Maybe our separation from nature and our selves, as Bernstein puts it, will only end when enough of us get the chance to temper our own over-heated heads with direct, unmediated experiences of the planet we share.
What we know in our bones we tend to carry along with us in our oldest stories: our ascent to new spiritual heights for vigor and authenticity depends on us to lie down—artza, down to the ground. What are we at heart if not b’nei adam, earthlings?
Questions for Thought/Discussion (Consider leaving your thought as a comment to this article.)