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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Va'etchanan

Parashat Va’etchanan

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Va’etchanan, which is Hebrew for “I implored.”[1] Moshe Rabbeinu, Moshe our Teacher, begins this parashah by describing how he “implored” or “pleaded”[2] with Hashem to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. But Hashem refuses, and instead, Moshe is instructed to climb a mountain and look out at the Promised Land. Rashi tells us that the word ‘implore’ is a term for prayer “that is used when one seeks an undeserved favor.”[3] And the Midrash tells us that Moshe prayed 515 times to be allowed to cross the Jordan.[4] Five-hundred-and-fifteen times Moshe beseeched Hashem, never giving up on the idea the Hashem may show him mercy – even though Moshe had already been told that the Land was closed to him. Again, Rashi outlines that “Moshe prayed only that he be allowed to enter the Land and walk its [its entirety]. He did not ask that he continue to be leader of the nation…as long as he could enter the Land and perform the commandments that can be observed only there (Sotah 14a)”[5] This is significant, because it is referring to the root of the mitzvot which are quintessentially based in Eretz Yisrael. But there’s also a strange paradox occurring, and this is something we learned regarding the sin of the spies – R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains that the spies were at a very high spiritual level and did not wish to lower themselves to the practical mitzvot.[6] If you remember back to Parashat Shelach, the spies reported that “[It] is a land that devours its inhabitants!” (Bamidbar 13:32) When we consider this passage, with respect to R. Shneur Zalman’s insight, the spies feared living in Eretz Yisrael – not because of a physical challenge of added mitzvot (that pertained to the Land) but because they feared that this might threaten their total involvement with a spiritual existence. Life in the Land is still a spiritual existence, it’s just more centered in place. Entering the Land initiates a new type of responsibility, which involves drawing down light and Hashem’s essence into the material world. The paradox is that life outside of the Land, in certain respects, may actually be more spiritual than life in Eretz Yisrael. When one enters the Land, there is not only a halakhic obligation to fulfill the mitzvot, but there is a spiritual and ontological shift – “one’s very being is qualitatively altered by being in [the Land].”[7] And this comes with a material responsibility that was not affiliated with a life in the desert. Moshe was praying for this responsibility to serve Hashem in such a way. And this has much to teach us about our own perseverance and our own efforts to correct our mistakes.

I’ve been thinking lately about the correlation between Eretz Yisrael and the archetype of Gaia, or Gaia consciousness. A number of years ago, Stephan Harding wrote a book titled Animate Earth: Science, Intuition, and Gaia. And in the book, he describes the earth as an animate, self-regulating being that holds together all of life. Harding is a pioneer of what is called ‘holistic science,’ which involves incorporating intuitive and qualitative perceptions – alongside mainstream science – to help grow our understanding of the natural world. One premise of Gaia theory is that the space of the earth is not a passive entity. It is sentient in its own right, continually interacting with individuals, trees, plants, rocks, and even molecules. And it is continually changing form as it adapts and molds to the dynamic of life. The idea of Eretz Yisrael is functioning in a similar way – whether we are in it, or out of it, we are constantly interacting with it as a powerfully transformative space. While your reality may differ depending upon where you are in the world, the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael are not fixed and static. And this is a phenomenon that is demonstrated in the tension between exile and return. This Torah reading was done this year on the 11th of Av, two days after the saddest day in the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the day on which both Temples were destroyed, and the Jewish people were thrust into exile. Chapter 4 (Verses 25-40) from this parashah, is the Torah reading of Tisha B’Av; it speaks of how Israel will be thrust into exile, and how it will eventually return. We read about the “spiritual sloth” that will take hold of the Jewish people after they have been long in the Land – how they will lose their “freshness” and “sense of spiritual adventure.”[8] From a traditional, rabbinic perspective this meant that the Jewish people would succumb to idolatry; in modern times, this relates to the influence of philosophies that would be unhealthy for Jewish thought and identity. But when we consider the exile, in relation to the story of the spies, we learn that the Eretz Yisrael has an inherent magnetism to it, but it also endangers our spirituality because of the material obligations that we have within it. Galut, or exile, offers the potential for a more spiritual life because there isn’t the same material challenge. In other words, in Eretz Yisrael, there is a greater probability of failure.[9]

Within the academic literature, a tension is discussed between Judaism and nature. Steven Schwarzchild summarizes one aspect of it in this way: “The main line of Jewish philosophy (in the exilic age) has paradigmatically defined Jewishness as alienation from and confrontation with nature.”[10] Barring a discussion about a history of forced urbanization and political oppression, this is one manifestation we see in some Jewish communities throughout the world. But I would make the argument that this occurs because there is no obligation to the literalness of Eretz Yisrael – it exists as an idea, a concept, or an eschatology. Indeed, there is a spiritual reality that can be revealed through the movement of aliyah. But, in exile, Jews exist in a fallen realm. There’s a Kabbalistic idea that not only are the people in exile, but so too is Hashem – the sefirah of Malchut has been detached from the other sefirot, and redemption is dependent upon the descent of the righteous.[11] In this kind of realm, a spiritual mission and spiritual identity is much easier to define. But in Eretz Yisrael, one has a responsibility to the natural ecosystem and to the Land. Even further, our ethics and values are contingent upon our treatment of it – there is no spiritual reality without a physical one, and this is potentially one reason for the apprehension of the spies: the practicality of the mitzvot endangered their transcendence. But we are living in a world, and in a time, that demands a responsibility to the earth. There is no room for a theology that values transcendence over everything else. All of our attention and all of our efforts must be channeled towards physical survival. This is one reason we can relate Eretz Yisrael to Gaia Consciousness – our globalized world is in exile, and the Land (as a metaphor) is not qualitatively changing the essence of our being. This is what Stephan Harding writes about in Animate Earth – allowing our ontological reality to be relational and allowing that relationality to inform our understanding of the natural world. Our spiritual restoration from exile is dependent upon the literal restoration of the Land, and this is a holistic phenomenon that affects everybody else and everything else. Exile and return are not polarities, it’s a spectrum – and whatever your orientation is to that continuum, it is still framed by an interaction with the Land.

On one level, we may read that Moshe was praying to be allowed into the Land. But he may have also been reinterpreting Eretz Yisrael in spiritual terms “so that a properly redeemed existence in [exile] can be regarded as almost equivalent to literal residence in the Holy Land.”[12] R. Shneur Zalman writes that “only during prayer may we be redeemed.”[13] And this is what Moshe was doing – praying fervently. Perhaps this is why the Shema appears in this parashah – acknowledging the Oneness of Hashem and declaring our love for Him is foundational to redemption. But to love Hashem is also to love Creation and the work of all creatures. Like Moshe, this is a metaphorical mountain we all must climb to understand, to internalize, and to make real. Those of us living now may only be able to see from a distance the future world that is being built. But still, we must try and take our faults and our deficiencies and transform them – redeem them. And this is an act that can be ecological if we see that our spiritual lives, and the condition of the Land, are intertwined.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: Eretz Yisrael and Gaia Consciousness, the Land as animate space, and our material responsibilities as part of a spiritual life


Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Lamm, Norman. "The religious thought of Hasidism: text and commentary." (1999).

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Sokol, Moshe. The Examined Life: Essays in Jewish Philosophy and Ethics. Boston, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2013.

[1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.959 [2] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.1063 [3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.959 [4] Devarim Rabbah [5] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.959 [6] Lamm, "The religious thought of Hasidism: text and commentary," p.515 [7] Lamm, "The religious thought of Hasidism: text and commentary," p.514 [8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.963 [9] Lamm, "The religious thought of Hasidism: text and commentary," p.517 [10] Sokol, “The Examined Life: Essays in Jewish Philosophy and Ethics,” p 355 [11] Lamm, "The religious thought of Hasidism: text and commentary," p.513 [12] Lamm, "The religious thought of Hasidism: text and commentary," p.514 [13] Lamm, "The religious thought of Hasidism: text and commentary," p.514

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