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.
The Midrash makes this point explicitly. It begins by questioning why the land is cursed on account of Adam's sin. R' Yehuda suggests that the land is cursed because the land itself sinned in not bringing forth fruit trees precisely according to the letter of God's command. Rabbi Pinchas disagrees and instead claims that the land is punished specifically because of its connection to Adam.
Rabbi Pinchas compares the situation with the case of an evil person about whom folks say, "Cursed be the breasts that nursed you." The land is the mother and nursemaid of Adam, and thus is inextricably connected to his fate. Just as a parent is linked to the behavior of a child, so too does the land bear responsibility for the children to whom she gave rise.
So when Adam is told to "work and protect the land," the charge is both physical and moral. In the world of Genesis, taking care of the land requires more than bodily effort. True custodianship over the land requires acting in such a way that our deeds do not reflect badly on our origins.
Our connection to the land both humbles and ennobles us. While we recall that we are made of dust, we recognize the awesome power that we have been given to care for and better the land that gave us birth.