Friday, October 18, 2019
Bereshit--In the Beginning
This year’s E-Torah is actually E(co)-Torah, with a focus on Jewish ecological wisdom from each week’s portion.
In his seminal 1967 essay, “The Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Professor Lynn White argued that the Western religious tradition—particularly the creation narrative in this week’s parshah—bears a huge burden of guilt for the world’s environmental ills. His primary focus was Genesis 1:28, where God blesses humanity and says: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it, and take dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” Over fifty years later, this critique is still prominent among many ecological activists.
Is this criticism merited? While some have surely used the Genesis text to justify environmental exploitation, this has not been the mainstream Jewish reading of the verse. Our Sages consistently refused to interpret this passage as a divine carte blanche to exploit nature without remorse. Nine hundred years ago, Rashi, the most distinguished commentator on the Torah, noted that the Hebrew word for “take dominion” (v’yirdu) comes from the same root as “to descend” (yarad). Thus, he declares: “When humanity is worthy, we have dominion over the animal kingdom; when we are not, we descend below the level of animals and the animals rule over us.” We are preeminent only when we act in keeping with the highest standards of responsibility. Abusing the rest of the creation is a sign of debasement rather than dominion. For a modern example, if we destroy human life on earth with our greenhouse gases, the cockroaches will, in all likelihood, succeed us as the “masters” of the planet.
Furthermore, the true significance of the mandate given to humanity in Genesis 1 is not defined until the second half of the creation account, which is found in Gen 2:4–15. Many biblical critics of the past century have emphasized the discrepancies between these two stories, attributing them to different authorial traditions. However, Jewish tradition—and an increasing number of literary-minded contemporary scholars—view the accounts as complementary. Each speaks to an important aspect of our relationship with the rest of God’s creation, and the full picture emerges only in the rich dialectic between them.
While the first account is primarily concerned with the linear unfolding of God’s cosmic plan to impose order upon chaos, the second accentuates humanity’s links with the earth. It introduces the concept of stewardship. Humans (adam) are formed from humus (adamah). God set us in the garden and told us to work it and watch over it. This is what our dominion actually entails. As the twentieth century German-Jewish scholar Benno Jacob points out, God’s commandment to watch over the garden characterizes the land as God’s property, not ours. Genesis 2 defines the mandate set forth in the previous chapter. We are guardians of a divine trust. As the psalmist later reminds us, “The earth is the Eternal’s.”
The Midrash Koheleth Rabbah sums up this view of Creation with a wonderful story:
When the Blessed Holy One created the first human beings, God took them and led them around all the trees of the garden of Eden and said to them: “Behold My works! See how lovely and commendable they are! Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy My universe, for if you do corrupt it, there will be no one to repair it after you.”
How can you practice good stewardship this week and into the future?