Called by God to separate himself from the society of idolators in which he was born and raised, this week’s Torah Portion tells how Abraham became the father of the Jewish People.
God called Avram and said: “Go! Go forth from your country, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation." (Genesis 13:1-3) The promise of the Land of Israel is a recurring theme in the Parsha. God said to Avram, “Lift up your eyes and see, from the place where you are. Look to the north, the south, the east and the west, for all the land that you see, I give to you and to your descendants for all eternity.” (Genesis 13:14-15) A formal covenant was established between God and Abraham in a very elaborate ceremony. It’s not enough however, to simply have a ceremony and say there’s a covenant. A covenant is a relationship, and the relationship to the land has to be more than just words. So, in verse 17 God says to Avram: “Get Up. Walk the land, to its length and to its breadth, for I give it to you.”
In his lovely book Spirit in Nature, Michael Fox Smart said: “This biblical narrative implies that Abraham could not encounter the Promised Land abstractly. Rather, he had to walk the land – climb its slopes, cross its streams, feel its heat, encounter its flora and fauna… to forge a covenant with it.” In doing this, the Covenant was established as much with the land as it was with God. And if you go for a hike in Israel today, you can still feel the covenant between the land and the Jewish People.
As I read this passage however, I am reminded of the beautiful poem by Lord Byron entitled Apostrophe To The Ocean:
“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean, roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin,
his control stops with the shore.”
Abraham established a covenant by walking the length and breadth of the land, but when he reached the Mediterranean Sea, his control stopped with the shore.
Unfortunately, while Lord Byron’s words may have been true when he wrote his poem in 1816, such is not the case today. Upon the shores, that have shifted with the tides and moved with the wind for millions of years, we have built concrete hotels and apartment buildings. On the waters where ten thousand fleets have swept over in vain, now float islands of plastic, debris and rubbish. The deep, dark blue ocean that teemed with life is now being pillaged by more than two million fishing vessels every day, taking anything and everything they can.
Man’s control ends at the shore, but his impact extends far beyond it.
A covenant reflects a deep bond of love, respect and commitment. It’s an intimate knowledge that transcends other relationships. A covenant is holy. In his book I and Thou, Martin Buber addresses the sacred nature of a covenantal relationship. Buber presented the idea that when we treat the other as an “it” we objectify and belittle the relationship; it’s transactional. However, when we engage deeply and meaningfully with the other, it becomes an I-Thou relationship; a covenant. It becomes holy. Abraham walked the land and created a covenant that will last for all time. Unfortunately, since we are not able to walk the Ocean as Abraham walked the land, we’re not able to create the same kind of relationship with it.
Unlike the land, the Sea is not ours. The Ocean, to most people on Earth, is an “it” and our relationship is transactional. Unlike a farmer who tills the land and cares for the soil, who plants the seed, nurtures the crop and reaps the bounty of the harvest, the fisherman takes all the Sea has to offer but gives nothing in return. Without a covenantal relationship with water, humans will destroy it; and without water humanity will not survive.
So how do we create such a relationship? We should approach it like any relationship that we want to deepen. Start by looking at how we approach it. If we really examine our relationship with water, we’ll see that more often than not, it’s transactional.
Because water is the most abundant substance on the planet, we take it for granted. The next time you drink a glass of water, be mindful of what you’re doing. Don’t just gulp it down because you’re thirsty. Take a moment to contemplate that what you’re holding in your hand is millions of years old, but fresh and cool. Take a moment to realize that what you’re holding in your hand began in the ocean, was carried away in a cloud and fell back to the earth as a raindrop or a snowflake until it ended up in your glass. Take a moment to contemplate that what you’re putting in your body, unlike anything else, is already there since your body is about 70% water. When you go to the beach, or a lake or a swimming pool, don’t just jump in and frolic in the waves. Pause for a bit, close your eyes and feel the cool water caress your body. Float on your back and let your body ebb and flow with the roll of the water. Contemplate the sensation of being surrounded by that which is already inside of you… becoming one with it; like a baby in its mother’s womb. Because yes, that’s where we all began… in water. There are so many ways to build that covenantal relationship. We just have to open our eyes, our hearts and our minds to the wonder that is water.