This week on Shabbat we read the story of creation. As this is story is so fundamentally about our stewardship of Earth, I felt inspired to write a Dvar Torah:
The festival period has ended and now we start the year in earnest by returning to the beginning of Torah and reading the stories of creation. Without getting caught up in the literal understanding of the seven days, lets use the story to consider how everything on Earth is carefully balanced and what our role in it all may be.
After each day/stage of creation, God declared “it was good”. Man was the last stage of creation and therefore everything else was good for its own sake and not only good in terms of benefits it could provide to man. Everything – the seas, the vegetation, the stars, the moon, the fish and the land animals and the birds – were good and were valued for their own sake. Indeed a Rabbinical expansion on this states:
“Even those things that you may regard as completely superfluous to Creation – such as fleas, gnats and flies – even they were included in Creation; and God’s purpose is carried through everything – even through a snake, a scorpion, a gnat, a frog.” (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 10:7).
And finally in the order of creation came man and woman. Unlike all the other creatures, they were given commandments –
“to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea, the bird of the sky, and every living thing”.
We have certainly succeeded in multiplying. There are now more than seven billion of us and we are likely to hit the eight billion mark within 10 years. We have spread throughout the planet, and made our presence known in every corner. Our pervading influence is such to have provoked geologists to name a new period in our planetary history – the Anthropocene.
So, what about the commandments to ‘subdue’ and ‘rule’? Do we learn from this that we may do exactly as we wish and treat all flora and fauna as if they exist solely to be exploited by us? It would seem that way when man makes irreversible changes to structure of Earth through destruction of rainforests and countless species within, by polluting the seas with plastic waste and even by changing the temperature of our atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. And indeed, the words above
do imply that this is what God is giving us permission to do.
However it becomes clear that interpretation is wrong upon reading the next Chapter of Bereishit in which Adam and Eve are told what they can and cannot eat in the Garden of Eden. They learn everything ultimately belongs to God and that man can only act within certain limits. They were placed in the Garden of Eden “to serve it and to guard it”, quite different from the terms “subdue and rule”. The Rabbis expand this with the following verse:
(Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)
“God led Adam around all the trees of the Garden of Eden. And God said to Adam: ‘See My works, how good and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, I made for you. But be mindful then that you do not destroy My world – for if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it.”
When Adam and Eve overstepped the limits placed on them and took what was not their’s to take, they were immediately expelled from Eden and their lives changed forever. We, as mankind, are forever transgressing the commandment to “serve” and “guard” our world. The consequences of our doing so are not instantaneous but develop over many years and if we continue on with business as usual our future generations will experience these consequences most severely.