By Rabbi Shawn Zell
The late U.S. Senator and Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson should have consulted a rabbinic authority or an expert in Biblical Hebrew before he introduced Earth Day into our culture. Had he followed this suggestion fifty-two years ago, this coming Thursday may very well have been referred to as Environment Day or Conservation Day, or Reign in Pollution Day. Had Governor Nelson been introduced to Hebrew – particularly biblical Hebrew, he would have realized that he was stirring up a hornet’s nest, in that the term “earth” revolves around much more than a planet.
The opening verse of the Torah teaches us that G-d created Shah’my’im and Eretz. While the former indisputably means “heaven”, one would do well to ask, what does the latter mean. To say “earth” is much too glib and simplistic. To be sure, each time we offer up the Hallel service, we chant: The heavens are the L-rd’s heavens, but the earth He has given to the children of man. Yet, each time we return the Torah Scrolls to the ark on a weekday Festival, we intone The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it. How is this possible? Either the earth was handed over to humans or it wasn’t. Perhaps the opening line of the Torah wishes to teach us that the earth is the converse of heaven. Put differently, heaven is everything that the earth is not. Heaven quakes are unknown entities. Similarly, celestial storms are nonexistent. By the same token, disease and devastation are foreign concepts. Yet, from time immemorial, the earth has been plagued by all the aforementioned. Heaven connotes bliss and harmony, order, and tranquility. For earth, these four concepts remain elusive ideals.
But wait! There’s more! Soon after the Torah introduced us to the antonymic Shah’my’im and Eretz, it acquainted us with the synonymic Eretz and Adamah. Linguists are quick to point out that even though both Eretz and Adamah can be translated as earth, the former refers to a planet, while the latter refers to the soil. Were it only so simple! One need only bring to mind what is arguably the best-known Hebrew Bracha or blessing familiar to Jews throughout the world – HaMotzti Lechem Min Ha’Aretz or “who brings forth bread from the earth” (signifying that we are about to indulge in a meal) – to realize that the blessing over vegetables – borei pri ha’adamah or “creator of the fruit of the ground” – presents us with a conundrum. Why is there lack of uniformity when it comes to saying, bread and potatoes? Surely both emanate from the soil! Are we to deduce that the soil for vegetables is not the same soil as the soil for bread? Agriculture aside, the answer is “most certainly” Adamah produces a ready-made product, whether it be onions and radishes, peas and corn. Adamah suggests refinement. Not so Eretz.
Eretz is unrefined. That’s why bread, the mainstay of human life does not grow directly out of the ground. The first human, the pinnacle of G-d’s creation, on the other hand, was formed from the Adamah.
The Hebrew language also presents us with Karka as another synonym for earth. Even though Karka does not appear in the Torah, Karka can be found in less than a dozen instances throughout the rest of the Tanach or Hebrew bible. Karka is typically connected with construction. As such Karka appears in conjunction with the Holy Temple. Komaht Karka in modern Hebrew refers to street level of a building. Unlike Adamah, Karka is not necessarily an agricultural term. When it comes to figurative speech, such as being able to find common ground with another person, Karka and not Adamah – as in Karka Meshuteffet is used. Last but not least, when it comes to one’s end-of-life journey, it is Karka and not Eretz or Adamah that is purchased.
Rather than preoccupation with pollution and straining of natural resources, perhaps Earth Day should be a day that recognizes and pays tribute to the three Hebrew words: Eretz, Adamah, and Karka. Earth Day ought to be a day for recognizing that earth is a world apart from heaven. As such, there is much work to be done to be able to meet the G-d given challenge that we have been given. Earth Day ought to be a day that reminds us that just as Adamah is a refined state of Eretz, so too is it incumbent upon us to refine, yet never destroy that has been bequeathed to us by G-d. Earth Day ought to be a day for inviting us to find Karka Meshuteffet or common ground with one another, as well as with G-d. If successful, Earth Day will have shown that we are truly worthy of having been the recipients of earth from our heavenly maker.