This is not the first time I’ve shared something I once wrote for DBH, but I’ll kick off with a short explanation of what’s about to happen for anyone unfamiliar: Over the course of a Jewish year, the entire Torah is read in sequence. Many people study the weekly portion, and sometimes relate what they have learned in the form of a Dvar Torah — literally, a word of Torah.
This post consists primarily of a Dvar Torah related to Bereishit, or Genesis (edited for having been originally written five years ago — but not for content). Those who keep track of such things will surely note that this past week’s portion was Lech Lecha, which followed Noah, which followed Genesis. In other words, this post appears to have arrived three weeks late.
Don’t worry, I have a good explanation: The week of Genesis, the YIHY (Young Israel House at Yale) listserv mistakenly announced it would read Noah. The week of Noah was Noah. And the week of Lech Lecha (i.e. this week), Manhattan pulled its best Noah (i.e. it flooded). And so, by the transitive property of weekly Torah portions, I can safely write about Genesis for another few days without incurring the Wrath of God:
When this Man meets World
This week we read about the creation of the world. [In the interests of full disclosure: I’m a big fan of said world.] Probably not coincidentally, the same Torah portion also discusses the creation of man, and includes a brief description of his relationship to the earth.
In the first chapter, God blesses man: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). At first blush, the Torah’s instructions seem relatively straightforward – God had His fun and is now handing over the keys. But while human domination of nature might sound appealing, Arnold Toynbee, Clive Ponting, and other historians and Natalie Portman have pointed to this passage as essentially the philosophical basis for Western exploitation of the environment. As a Jew and an environmentalist, this is a disheartening allegation.
But I think Genesis gets a bad rap.
Had those historians continued reading, they might have discovered a second description of man’s relationship to the earth in the very next chapter. When God places man in the Garden of Eden, he instructs him “to work it and to guard it” (Genesis 2:15). Unlike the previous characterization of man as conqueror, this description is more akin to that of a guardian or – if you will – a Gardener.
Which approach represents the ‘true’ view of the Torah?
Let’s turn to another episode of conquest described in the Torah, the source of the prohibition of waste. In Shoftim, God outlines appropriate conduct after conquering a city: “Do not destroy its tree [for] from it you will eat. [Only] a tree that you know is not a food tree may you destroy and cut down and build a fortification” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). Though showing little regard for the human inhabitants of the conquered land, the Torah takes pains to ensure that the land’s resources survive the ravages of war.
This passage helps resolve the tension between man-as-conqueror and man-as-gardener: conquest does not grant conquerors free reign.
Man, as conqueror, holds a unique place in the world. That his decisions impact the entire planet does not grant him license to wantonly pillage it. God’s earth provides a bounty of renewable resources from which man can support a certain level of consumption indefinitely, but for resources to be truly renewable, they must actually be renewed. Every species man drives to extinction, every river he poisons, every aquifer he salinizes, and every degree he raises the temperature serves only to foreclose that renewal, and ensures that life will be more difficult down the line.
If you think this environmental parable too tenuous — a ‘Dvar Torah’ in name, but a ‘Dvar Environment’ in fact — I would direct you to an essay by Rabbi Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, titled Ecology, the Work of Creation.
Rabbi Lamm describes how early Torah portions relate stories in which separation from – and destruction of – nature are irrevocably negative: When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden and forced to toil for their sustenance. When Cain committed the first act of murder, he became rootless – separated from the land. And when God destroyed civilization by flood, blame was ultimately laid at the foot of man’s iniquity.
To bring the lesson of Genesis back to the world of today: We face a series of choices that, in truth, amount to a single stark chooice. If we wish to remain in a world of plenty, we cannot eat from every tree in the garden. The temptation to mine every mountain, uproot every forest, and burn every lump of coal is certainly great, and the decision not to do so must be collective in order to be truly effective. But each and every one of us is blessed with the wherewithal to live a more sustainable lifestyle and contribute to the creation of a better world, one day, and one decision at a time.
Recycling this DBH would be a good first step.
That conclusion made more sense when it came in printed format. Still, electrons are better.