I have been a long-distance runner for most of my adult life: marathons, half-marathons, ultra-marathons, adventure races. Of all the places I’ve run, nothing really compares to the beauty—both natural and man-made–in Jerusalem, my newly adopted home. Within an area of just a few kilometers, I can be running around the walls of the Old City or inside a large urban wildlife refuge.
On Sunday mornings, I frequently take a scenic route that takes me to Gan Sacher, Jerusalem’s equivalent of Manhattan’s Central Park. There are playgrounds, picnic areas, ball fields, and on Sunday morning a ton of trash littering the ground.
In this week’s Torah portion, Eikev we read:
For your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to your God for the good land given you. Take care lest you forget the your God and fail to keep God’s commandments, rules, and laws, which I enjoin upon you today.
The people are told they will soon enter a land filled with the historic seven species, as well as a land rich in mineral deposits: iron and copper, as well as copious amounts of clean water. The Israelites are blessed with multiple environmental gifts and it might be expected that subsequent and adjacent verses would caution us to respect the land and the bounty of the fields and trees, but the Torah does not offer this warning. Instead, we are told that the bounty of the land is predicated on the collective remembering of God’s continued beneficence to the Israelite nation. In order for the Israelite nation to receive the fruit of the earth, the fledgling Israelite nation is told:
Do not forget the Eternal your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage…who brought forth water, who fed you manna…Remember that is the Eternal your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfilment of the covenant… (Deut 8:12-18)
Over and over, throughout the Torah, the Israelites are told to remember and recall their Exodus from Egypt and that they are all descendants of slaves. This act of remembrance is so fundamental to development as a people, that in the morning prayer service we are asked to recall six episodes from Torah, including the Exodus from Egypt:
Recall the Exodus from Egypt
Recall standing at Sinai
Recall the Golden Calf
Recall Shabbat- the first gift (Mishkan Tefillah, p. 43)
In this time of heightened awareness of the risks of climate change, environmental despoliation, and food insecurity, perhaps we need to add another remembrance. One that predates the Exodus, one that goes back to the Garden of Eden. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are told it is their responsibility to “work and keep” the Garden (Genesis 2:15) and in Ecclesiastes Rabbah we are told, “Observe how beautiful is the work of my creation. Take care not to destroy it, for no one will repair it after you” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13). And the Psalmist tells us: “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who live in it” (Psalms 24:1). As Jews throughout the world, and especially here in Israel, we need to remember that the food we eat and the natural resources we enjoy are gifts.
My running through the Jerusalem’s streets early in the morning is a form of moving meditation: I sing, I pray, and I rejoice in the brilliance and wonder of the human body. Maybe it’s time that I add these remembrances to my daily ritual to offer thanksgiving for who we are as a people, but also gratitude for the privilege of being a steward of this magnificent planet that sustains all life.