Parashat Vaera

The Earth is the Lord's

Modern-day plagues are occurring with greatly increasing frequency around the world.

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Whose Earth?

Many additional commentators contrast our verse with the apparently contradictory verse from Psalms: "The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He has given to man (Psalms 115:16)." Is the earth the Lord's or man's? Under which conditions? Expounding this verse will help provide answers and lead to a concluding discussion on man and modern environmental problems.

Psikta Zutra reconciles the two verses by specifying that humans' dominion over the earth is conditional on their following the will of God. If they do so, they are granted the earth for their use and enjoyment; if not, the land reverts to God.

Similarly, according to Mezudat David on this verse, "God gives the land (in this case, the land of Israel) to the ones who are righteous in His eyes and will be for a blessing in its midst."

In Tractate Berakhot, R. Levi explains that "the earth is the Lord's" applies before one has made a blessing on the enjoyment of the earth's bounty and thereby acknowledged the ultimate source of material goods, while "the earth He has given to man" applies after one has made such a blessing.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, current Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, elaborates: "A blessing is therefore an act of acknowledgement of God's ownership. If we do not make one prior to enjoying the things of this world, it is as if we had made secular use of God's property. Once we have made a blessing, we have, as it were, redeemed the source of pleasure (buying it back for private use by our offering of words). Once we symbolically give something back to God, He gives it back to us."

Modern-Day Plagues

At all events, even when the earth is given over to human dominion, humankind does not have free reign to do whatever it wants with it. The need for careful, considerate, and compassionate stewardship of natural resources is emphasized time and again throughout the Torah. 

The plagues were expressions of God's power over the earth. They were intended as a reproof to the arrogant Pharaoh and a demonstration to the Egyptians of the limits to his power and the fallacy of their trust in him.

Modern man has set himself as absolute master of the biophysical world. In pursuit of technological mastery and material prosperity, many in modern society have lost the sense of a greater transcendent power and of a meaning and purpose beyond the world they know. This has had drastic moral and environmental ramifications.

Now, modern-day "unnatural plagues" are occurring with greatly increasing frequency around the world: land degradation, including deforestation and soil erosion; water stress, leading to pollution and depletion of freshwater and decimation of ocean fish stocks; stress on biota, resulting in extinctions and the spread of invasive species; and atmospheric pollution, including local and regional air pollution, ozone layer depletion, and greenhouse gases.

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Dr. David L. Goldblatt

David L. Goldblatt received degrees from Brown University and Yale University and a doctorate in environmental science from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). He is currently a research consultant in energy and the environment for industry, ETH, and other universities, and he co-directs the translation and editing firm editranslate.com. Dr. Goldblatt lives in Zurich, Switzerland with his wife and four children.