America the Beautiful

America is beautiful.

I spent just under three weeks with my family this summer, driving coast to coast and back. Through 7,500 miles, we experienced the vast empty spaces, the wind-swept plains, the majestic mountains, the forests, the deserts, and the sea-battered cliffs. While we visited several national parks, the beauty of our country was not hard to find even outside them.

And it is impossible not to notice how the land is being used.

Most of our country is occupied either by corn or by wheat, or it is devoted to grazing for cattle. Watching field after field pass by from the road, I marveled at the tenacity of the American farmer, keeping the land fertile, using watering devices that seemed half a mile long, keeping the crops in perfect lines, the land bringing forth fruit. The ranch land was different. There it was the cows who managed to find whatever grass there was to chew on, whether the terrain was flat or hilly, smooth or rocky, with the flora abundant or scarce.

And that is almost our whole country. For someone like me, born on the island of Manhattan, it is important to remember that while we live in urban sprawl, most of our land still is unspoiled by concrete.

But we live in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and we see the effects of global warming every day. As the ice melts, as hurricanes strike, and as each summer gets hotter than the one before, we cannot escape the question of how we have treated the land with which we have been entrusted, and what legacy we will leave for those who come after us. While I drove with my family through 7,500 miles of land that we might call empty, in fact most of it was developed to support the huge human populations that rely on it. From the New York metropolis to Los Angeles and back through Chicago, we knew why there had to be so many farms, and so many cows. A fertile producing land is one thing. But grazeland devoted to endless herds who consume vast quantities grass and water to produce beef for an overfed and nutritionally unbalanced human population raises challenges of sustainability.
Can the land continue to feed us, or are we milking it dry to support our thirst for beef?

I came away from our road trip intent on changing the way I eat. Beef need not be eliminated, but we don’t need it every day. If we treat our bodies more carefully by feeding ourselves better, at the same time we can help save more of the land around us.

Driving across the country revealed not only the land’s labor to feed us, but also how it is employed to harness energy to support the way we live. I consoled myself with my fuel-efficient engine and excellent mile-per-gallon ratio as we passed oil rigs in Wyoming. A sunset cruise on Lake Erie was beautiful, even as we passed a coal-refinery plant and saw the nuclear power plant across the way. What marred the landscape was the good and clean energy that seems to be blooming across the country. Predominantly across the Texas Panhandle, but in many other places as well, we marveled at the massive wind turbines as they worked to capture the power of the air. Wind farms and sun farms dot more and more of our country. Where the ground is too arid and the sun too strong for even the most determined cattle to live on, we have learned to capture the energy from the sun so that the very element that makes the land inhospitable can be used to support our mechanical infrastructure.

While the sun farms sparkled like an illusory oasis tucked into the desert valleys, it was the wind turbines that drew our attention most of all. Seeming like Orwellian monstrosities that towered over us as we drove between them, we knew that these giants were laboring to preserve the natural resources of the land, looking instead to the wind.

It was wind that the Torah imagines as the hand of God at the moment of creation. Creation seems to have come full circle now, as we are just learning how to be better stewards of the land, turning back to the wind to support us, rather than stripping the land of its life. We, as a species, are suffering the unintended consequences of our success as we have piously fulfilled the mandate of what the Torah records as God’s first command, to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and master it. Now we must preserve the earth and protect our beautiful land and resources. A good master does not destroy.

Driving across the United States and back, I am both inspired by our resourcefulness in mastering the earth, and terrified by its consequences. At a time when our government has disengaged from international conventions on environmental controls and seems determined to deregulate much of the controls over energy usage and production, it becomes more incumbent upon us than ever to understand what is happening to our land, to work to influence positive change, and to adjust our own living to more responsible sustainable standards.

The Torah begins with a command to be fruitful and multiply. But it ends with a challenge to keep the covenant if we want to inherit the land. Now we understand that we have a covenant toward the land. If we fail, we will be disinherited.
In our country we love to sing “God Bless America.” But God needs our help.

About the Author
Dr. David J. Fine is the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood and past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. He holds a doctorate in modern European history and is an adjunct professor of Jewish law at the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel colleges at the University of Potsdam in Germany.