January 28, 2023 | 6 Shvat 5783
Torah: Exodus 10:1-13:16 Triennial: Exodus 10:1-11:13
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28
Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn
The Eye of the Earth
Was the earth created for us? Were we created for the earth? Is there a necessary order of primacy for us and the earth? Genesis 1 seems to suggest that humans are meant to rule over all the earth. We read, “fill the earth and conquer it.” Genesis 2 seems to suggest that humans are meant to be the caretakers of the earth. We read, “God took the human and set him down in the garden of Eden to till it and watch it.”
These questions play out in the plague narrative. As has often been discussed, the plagues can be read as an undoing of creation. There is death where there once was the breath of life and darkness in place of light. The fiery hail reverses the separation of water from water. The Nile becoming blood makes this separation even more murky. Plant life is destroyed instead of created. Animals – the frogs, lice, and insects – have dominion over humans.
Creation leads to destruction which leads to a new creation. We see this repeatedly in the opening of Genesis with Seth in place of Cain, the flood and the new world, and the babbling of languages. Here it plays out again – the old Egypt is destroyed in order to create the new nation of Israel. Destruction means destruction of people, animals, plants, and the earth itself. The creation of Israel, however, at first means only the creation of the people, the forming of the nation. The distinctive ways of existence for animals and plants of Israel are not mentioned until we get to the laws of sacrifice. Most strikingly, the earth, the land of Israel, will not be created, be brought from word and idea to physical reality until after the Torah finishes.
In this reading, humans seem to be created for the earth. We are to be the caretakers of the Land of Israel. We have strict instructions to follow, given to us as the Torah, so that we know how to do a good job. When we do a bad job, the land will vomit us out. However, there are still remnants of Genesis 1, still remnants of the earth being created for us. In the description Moses gives to the Reubenites and the Gadites about their responsibilities to help the Israelites out before settling across the Jordan, Moses talks of the land being “conquered,” using the same word as we saw in Genesis 1. By taking possession of the land, the Israelites are conquering it, subduing it. The land is there for us to take, to use. It was created for us.
A reading of the eighth plague helps to unify these perspectives. Moses tells Pharaoh of the locusts to come, explaining that they will cover the “eye of the earth.” This is a very weird term. Rashi explains that it means the ability to see the earth. The earth will be obscured from view because the locusts will have covered it. Thus, the eye of the earth is something external to earth, above the earth, that normally can view it but cannot when the earth is covered by locusts. This idea brings up the existential question about a tree falling in the forest. If the earth cannot be seen, is it still there? Ibn Ezra offers an alternative reading, explaining that the locusts actually covered the eyes of the inhabitants, the people. The earth’s eye is then the eyes of all people. Humans give reality to the earth by viewing it. Targum Onkelos offers a third reading, explaining that the eye of the earth is the sun. The locusts swarmed so thickly that there was no longer any light. This reading returns us to Genesis 1, the creation of the heavens and the earth. Here, the eye of the earth itself is in the heavens.
In each reading, the earth is obscured as a punishment for the Egyptians. The earth is used in order to teach people, suggesting that that is its purpose. However, the eye of the earth is also inextricable from the people, from the heavens, and from God. In the neverending flow from creation to destruction to creation again, the boundaries might not be as firmly established as we had thought. The chaos of before creation is evident even in creation. It is impossible to declare that humans have primacy over the earth or vice versa. After all, from the dust we were taken and to the dust we will return.