Many societies refer to the ground under our feet as Mother Earth. According to the account we read this week, it is a very appropriate name. “Hashem created man, ground from the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living being” (Bereishit 2:7). So indeed the ground can historically be called our mother. Hashem’s instructions to His creations only strengthened the relationship. The earth was to generously sustain man (ibid.:16), and man was to work and guard it (ibid.:15).
But problems arose. Adam abused his rights in the Garden of Eden and took more of the earth’s fruit than he was permitted. As a result, both mankind and the earth itself were punished (ibid. 3: 17-19). But the basic relationship was still intact. At the end of life, man would still be interred in the source of his life, “for you are earth, and to earth you shall return” (ibid.).
Then the problems became more severe. Cain, whose occupation was to work the land, first sinned by not using its bounty properly to show respect to his Maker. The situation deteriorated to the point that he killed his brother. In the process, a strange turn of events occured. Previously, Adam had opened his mouth to absorb a part of the earth’s fruit that was off limits to him. At this point, Hashem criticized the earth for opening up its “mouth” to absorb a part of man that should have been off limits to it. The ground should be the burial place of the deceased. But here, the earth covered up the blood of a mortally wounded, live person, thus serving as an accomplice to the crime (see 4:11 with Rashi). At this point, Cain is told that even with hard work, he would not succeed in working the land productively.
What does Cain do with the new circumstances? The Torah relates that he built a city and named it after his son, Chanoch (a name which hints at the concept of inauguration). Rav Hirsch notes that the Torah does not use past tense to tell that he built a city, but says that he became the builder of a city. In other words, he changed professions and initiated a direction for himself and his offspring afterward. That was to ignore, cover up, and build over the ground with the man-made, a city. He gave up finally, out of resignation, not necessity, on the former relationship between man and Mother Earth.
This approach was reversible. Noach developed agricultural tools to help deal with the curse of the ground (Rashi on 5:29). After his generation caused the destruction of the natural world as it was known, Noach came out of the ark and became a “man of the ground” (ibid. 9:20). From those times on, there has been tension between segments of society. Some have felt Mother Earth’s call and have embraced an agrarian lifestyle and value system. Others fit into the mold of city-builder (or, at least, city dweller), giving up on the dream of repairing the damaged relationship between man and the earth. Some live with internal conflict between the differing feelings.
In Eretz Yisrael, we have a special closeness to the Land, which impacts on its inhabitants. Here even city dwellers should find a way to connect to it.