D’var Torah: Quietly cultivate ‘earth-wisdom’ to help heal the world



I grew up mostly in California, and people often presume that I must have spent my whole life out communing with nature. In truth, I was never a big hiker, and I absolutely hated camping and boating.

As an adult, I still hate camping, but I have come to love hiking and, surprisingly, kayaking. I don’t do them as often as I could, often relegating them to opportunities when I am away on vacation. But when I can, I love being away from the concrete, noticing the colors and textures of the vegetation, marveling at the animals, listening to the sounds, and watching the light and shadow shimmer on the water.

It somehow makes me feel like all is right in the world — as if humans and the Earth we live on could actually co-exist in some sort of healthy balance.

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, Miriam dies and the people become thirsty. The people complain, as they so often do. So G-d tells Moses and Aaron to take the rod, gather the people  and order the rock to give them water.

Moses, though, seems to lose his temper. He takes the rod, yells at the people for being so whiny and, instead of talking to the rock, hits the rock twice. The rock does produce water but, as a punishment for his actions, Moses will no longer be able to enter the land of Israel.

I have always found this punishment so extreme. After all that Moses has done, after all the whining he has put up with, after all the challenges of leadership, is God really going to prevent him from entering the land of Israel? Really?!

I have read many commentaries that attempt to explain why this makes sense. At different points in my life, I have gravitated toward different lessons that speak to where I am in my personal growth or life’s journey.

This year, I am struck by a new lesson: this story’s message about humanity’s relationship with the world. Perhaps this feels especially relevant because we have been stuck inside for so long due to COVID. It certainly feels relevant as we experience the devastating effects of climate change all around us.

All I know is that when I first read these words by Rabbi Shefa Gold in her 2006 book “Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land,” they resonated with me in a surprisingly meaningful way:

“To speak to the rock means to be in conversation with the natural world; hitting it is an attempt to subjugate nature.”

The violence that Moses shows to the rock becomes a symbol of humanity’s attempt to dominate the world in which we live. If we believe that the world is ours to use as we wish, we can hit it and destroy it all we want. But if we believe that we should live in balance with the world around us, the words we speak should be as gentle and quiet as the sound of water trickling through a creek bed.

Hitting the rock and speaking to the rock will produce water. But one creates water through force, while the other creates it with respect, with hope and with what Rabbi Gold calls “earth-wisdom.”

This summer let’s try to get outside and imagine what could happen if we conversed with the natural world instead of using our energy to dominate it. Let us learn from Moses’ mistake. Let us speak soft words, let us listen to the sounds and the silence, let us see the beauty around us, and let us try to recapture some of the earth-wisdom that will allow humanity to live together in life-giving harmony with the world around us.

Rabbi Janine Schloss serves Temple Emanuel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.