Leket Israel and Parashat Bereishit
A core theme of this week’s parsha is sustainability. Trees are created with seed-bearing fruit so that new generations of trees will grow when these trees die. Sustainability is the cornerstone of the work of Leket Israel. We are committed to doing what we can to ensure that the earth’s resources are not depleted and can replenish themselves for future generations.
Creation and Sustainability
Melissa Lane is a Professor of Politics at Princeton University. She is Director of Princeton’s Program in Values and Public Life of the University Center for Human Values, and a core participant in an interdisciplinary Research Community on ‘Communicating Uncertainty: Science, Institutions, and Ethics in the Politics of Global Climate Change’ supported by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. Melissa’s third book, Eco-Republic (2011/2012) is on Plato and sustainability.
On the third day of creation of the world, God creates vegetation: ‘seed-bearing plants of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it’ (Genesis 1:12). After human beings have been created on the sixth day, these seed-bearing plants and fruits are presented to them as ‘yours for food’ (Genesis 1:29). Fruit has a special resonance as a foodstuff in many cultures. The ancient Greeks also considered it as an aboriginal kind of foods, for example in Hesiod’s myth of the golden age and Plato’s versions of the myth of Kronos, in which humans enjoyed abundant fruits. As in these Greek texts, abundant fruit in the Torah embodies the dream of food without toil. Fruit is so seductive a foodstuff because, ripe, it may fall literally into our hands; we need not even till the earth to harvest it.
But is the Torah’s vision in this parasha one of food without toil altogether? When the story of creation is telescoped into a second account of human beings who are placed in the garden of Eden, we find a double role for human artisanry. On the one hand, God again takes care to stock the garden with ‘every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food’ (Genesis 2:9). God is concerned to make trees beautiful in human eyes as well as nourishing: we are not to see them only as producing food as if it were pure utility, feeding our faces without even having like babies to work to suck. On the other hand, the man is placed in the garden ‘to till…and tend’ it (Genesis 2:15). Although the soil is cooperative and the labor not painful — as it will become with the cursed expulsion from Eden — work must be done even in Eden.
This reminds us that in fact, the dream of food without toil is a fantasy. Fruit trees need pruning if they are to flourish long term. Even fruitarian food requires a cooperative venture between nature and human craft, all the more so insofar as human activities come to disrupt the health of the tree and plant self-reproduction with which divine creation originally endowed them. In its second creation story, the parasha recognizes this fact, acknowledging the partnership between humans and the natural world that sustaining food will require.
Yet if we return to the first creation story, we find one more thing to learn from the creation of ‘seed-bearing’ plants and fruits on the third day, and their designation as ‘food’ on the sixth. Seeds are the promise of a recurrent, perennial supply of food, one with self-renewing powers, even if they will do best when cultivated by human care. In other words, the creation of food – the first food that is created – is intrinsically sustainable. Human effort in the second creation story can enhance and support that sustainability, working with trees and plants. But to undermine or disrupt the self-renewing source of our food supply is to violate the order of creation itself.
Buy the book “From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey” by Diana Lipton. All proceeds go to Leket Israel