Yesterday, we noted the famous teaching of the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 5:9), cited by Rashi in his commentary to Parashat Bereishit (1:11), that the ground “disobeyed” God at the time of the world’s creation. God had commanded the ground to give forth trees that would have flavor even in their bark, but the ground instead grew trees that produced tasty fruit but were otherwise inedible. The Midrash explains on this basis God’s response to Adam and Chava’s sin, after they partook of the forbidden tree in Gan Eden, pronouncing, “Arura ha-adama” (3:17), placing a curse on the ground, declaring that it would produce food only with great difficulty. This curse, the Midrash comments, came as a delayed punishment for the “sin” it committed at the time of creation.
A number of writers addressed the question of why God did not curse the ground immediately, and instead waited until after Adam and Chava disobeyed God by partaking of the forbidden fruit. The Yefei Toar commentary to Midrash Rabba suggested that God withheld punishment because punishing the ground would cause human beings undeserved hardship and difficulty. After Adam and Chava’s sin, however, they deserved to be punished, and so at that point God placed a curse on the ground that a great deal of labor and struggle would be needed for it to produce food.
We might also suggest a different approach, viewing the story of the ground’s “disobedience” as intended to analogize imprecise, careless, or partial fulfillment of one’s duties. The Midrash perhaps associated the “curse” pronounced upon the ground and the curse pronounced upon humankind in order to draw our attention to the contrast between these two sins. Adam and Chava committed an act of direct, flagrant disobedience, doing exactly what they were told not to do. The Midrash may have told the story of the ground to depict a subtler form of disobedience – obeying a command in a halfhearted, casual and irresponsible manner. The ground, as depicted by the Midrash, did what it was told to do – but it did not care to follow the instructions precisely. Its work was “shoddy,” performed without attention to detail, resulting in a final product that fell far short of what was intended. By linking the curse pronounced upon the ground and the punishment of Adam and Chava, the Midrash perhaps seeks to teach that we must view shoddy, incomplete performance as severely as we do flagrant violations. Just as we ensure to avoid committing outright forbidden acts, so must we strive to ensure that we fulfill our religious obligations thoroughly, correctly, and in a detailed fashion, so that the mitzva acts we produce are as complete as possible.