Connected to the Land
In the opening chapters of Genesis, God makes very clear that humans and their land are connected and intertwined
The portion Bereishit opens the Bible, quite appropriately, with the story of creation. In the familiar Genesis story, God's handiwork on Days 1 through 6 is outlined, culminating with the creation of humans and the setting aside of the seventh day as a day of rest. The story moves to the saga of the forbidden fruit and the expulsion from Eden, before recounting the first murder--Cain killing his brother, Abel.
God creates the first person in a verse of esoteric eloquence: "And the Lord God created Adam [from the] dust of the land, and God blew in Adam's nostrils the breath of life, and Adam became a living creature" (Genesis 2:7). The Midrash notes that Adam is created from both the lower spheres (the dust) and the upper spheres (the breath of God), and it is this balance that allows Adam the capacity to bring harmony and peace to the world (Bereishit Rabbah
12:8). Adam is rooted firmly in the earth that is his origin, but he is given the capacity to reach the heavens. It is Adam's--and by extension humanity's--inexorable connection to the land that we will explore this week.
Not only is humanity created from the land, but the fate of the land is intricately bound up with the destiny of people.
When Adam sins by eating the fruit of the "tree of knowledge of good and evil," God responds, "Cursed is the land because of you, in sorrow will you eat of it all the days of your life. And thorns and thistles will grow for you...until you return to the land for from it were you taken, for you are dust and will return to dust" (Genesis 3:17-19). God not only reminds Adam of his humble origins, but actually curses the land because of its connection to Adam.
A similar scenario ensues after Cain slays Abel. God castigates Cain: "The voice of your brother's blood is calling to me from the ground. Now cursed are you from the land that opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hands. If you work the land, it will no longer yield its strength to you, a wanderer shall you be in the land." In this case, the land is not directly cursed, but Cain's punishment is mediated through the land. The land, by absorbing Abel's blood, is seemingly complicit in the crime, and Cain's ultimate punishment is that his ties to the land are severed.
This is especially striking, since Cain has been previously described as a "worker of the land," in contrast to Abel the shepherd. In next week's portion, the crimes of humanity become so great that God brings a flood across the land, effectively reversing the third day of creation, when land came into being after God separated out the water. In each case, the punishment for the sins of people is borne by the land. The moral history of humanity is etched into the land that gave it birth.