Planting for the Future

Parashat Kedoshim teaches us to preserve our natural resources.

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A stretch for humans comes naturally to animals. We prefer dependence. The midrash comments on the verse in Job: "Who has given understanding to the cock?" (38:36), which is also the text for the first of the daily blessings in the morning service. Wisdom is encoded into nature by God. Taking the word sekhvi as hen rather than cock, the midrash describes a common barnyard scene. The hen gathers her tiny chicks under her wings, warms them and leads them around. But once they are grown, let one try to return and the hen will peck at his head, saying go dig for your own food.

To achieve its expanded reading of the text, midrash turns legislation into narrative. Not only does the conquest of Canaan require of us to work the land, it also imposes on us the obligations to steward itresponsibly. We are expected to preserve its life-sustaining resources undepleted for our children. We found the land covered with trees planted by others when we entered it, says the midrash, and that is how we are supposed to hand it on. No one is ever to say I am too old to worry about the welfare of the next generation.

And then the midrash recounts that the Roman emperor Hadrian once passed through Palestine on his way to war in the east, where he happened upon an elderly Jew planting fig trees. The sight of such altruism prompted the emperor to ask the man his motives. "My lord, the king," said the man, "I trouble myself to plant because if I merit it, I myself shall eat of the fruits of my labor. And if not, then my children will."

Three years later, Hadrian returned to that self-same spot in Palestine to be greeted by the elderly farmer with a basket full of fresh figs. He reminded the emperor of their previous conversation and gave him the figs. Awed by the man's lack of self-centeredness, Hadrian returned his basketfull of Roman gold coins.

Don't Stop Planting

The midrash reiterates its lesson: Let no one ever cease from planting. Fields filled with trees greeted us at birth, and we should add to their number even in old age. For God has already taught us by example that personal gain is too narrow a base for human behavior, as it is written,"The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east" (Genesis 2:8), surely done for human benefit, without any thought of self.

So in the midst of a parashah that teaches us how to relate to family, fellow human (both native and foreign) and God, the midrash adds yet a fourth dimension: our treatment of the habitat in which we live. The midrash resonates with an environmental ethic reinforced by language. In rabbinic Hebrew the word "shoots," netiot (from the root "to plant") takes on a metaphoric meaning of "children." The convergence of meanings helps us move beyond our selves, or better to see ourselves in that which lies beyond us. For all our wisdom and consciousness, humans are not endowed with much of a capacity to see ahead. The long term consequences of our actions rarely enter into the calculations behind our choices. Thus the overlapping meanings of netiot, the subtle nuances of language, throw up a gentle reminder to think of our children as we go about assaulting and subordinating the natural world for our own immediate and exclusive gratification.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.