The creation of trees led Rashi to make a comment I find remarkable on its face and important for the horizons it opens for our personal accomplishments in the year to come. Rashi notices Gd told the land to produce an etz peri, a fruit tree, oseh peri, that makes or produces fruit (1;11). Instead, the land produces an etz oseh peri, a fruit-producing tree. The land’s failure to fulfill Gd’s command was the reason it was included in Adam’s punishment when he ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Otherwise, why would Gd say “arurah ha-adamah ba-‘avurekha, the land is cursed because of you”? It seems unfair to the land, the Midrash is saying.)
For the Midrash Rashi chose to cite, apparently, the land had enough free will to violate Gd’s command. I think we moderns assume the natural world has no consciousness because it feels unscientific– we have seen no evidence of it, and it was primitives who ascribed feelings or thoughts to parts of the natural world.
I have no stake in insisting Nature does have a consciousness, only in insisting we keep an open mind to what tradition took seriously. I learned this from R. Lichtenstein, zt”l, who once gave an impassioned plea for an open mind about the efficacy of astrology and other forms of divination—for all they are prohibited to Jews. He assumed we most of us are absolutely convinced Rambam was right, divination does not have any real way to access truth. But Ramban is also an important authority, and he and many like him were sure divination works, in the right hands, was prohibited to Jews as a matter of Torah law, not as a matter of its being foolish.
It matters here, because the idea of the earth’s failure gives insight into a Talmudic concept closer to our personal experience. Vayikra 23;40 terms an etrog a peri etz hadar, fruit of a beautiful tree; Sukkah 35a explained the beauty in the tree’s having the same taste as its fruit.
I think I long assumed the Talmud was appreciating the unity of the plant, how the tree and fruit present the same face (or taste) to the world. The Midrash our Rashi records opens another possibility; as Korban Ha-Edah, Sukkah 3;5 notes (a source I found online), the etrog is one of the few trees to have fulfilled Gd’s command from this parsha, to have come out with an etz peri, not just an etz oseh peri, a tree that makes fruit.
Taking the etrog on Sukkot reminds us of the world we never got to see, because nature failed before we ever had a chance to fail. Especially so soon after Yom Kippur, when we tried to make peace with our misses of the past year, when we rededicated ourselves to being our best, the etrog and Parshat Bereshit to me carry a message of potential, hope, and renewal.
We’ve read through this Torah many times before (depending how old we each are). Never have we gotten it perfect, never have we managed to be better than Nature and produce the versions of ourselves Gd told us to or wanted us to. But past performance neither guarantees future results, nor limits what we can do or whom we can be.
As we put the etrog away (or in our tallit bags to smell after prayers every morning, with the berakhah of ha-noten re’ah tov ba-perot), we can carry its physical smell with us and, even more, the smell of the perfection of obedience to Gd’s command it symbolizes. And hope we finally learn its lesson, and mold ourselves in the ways Gd has always wanted, and come to next year’s etrog closer to its high standards of enacting the Divine Will as Gd revealed it.