If you read the beginning chapters of the Torah to try to figure out how we got here, you’ll probably wind up with a headache. Parshat Bereshit, and the beginning of Genesis, opens with not one but two creation stories. Neither of these jives particularly well with evolutionary science. We can read many books about the interplay between the Bible and cosmology, and I wonder if any of them will prove satisfactory.
The question that isn’t difficult at all to answer is a different one. Instead of breaking open our heads to establish how we got here, let’s ask why we got here. After presenting competing myths about creation, with many complicated details, it answers the latter question in one verse: “God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it–l’ovdah ulshomrah.” That’s all–just two imperatives. We are here to work the earth and to protect it.
Of course, it’s not so simple to put this simple answer into practice. In truth, we’ve been better at working the earth than protecting it. Rabbi Ari Kahn of Bar Ilan University expresses this grave concern in his book A River Flowed From Eden: “The course of human history may be seen as an expression of man’s basic attempts to subdue and harness nature for his needs; this expansive urge is the “work” we do. But what of protecting nature? Can we similarly describe human history as the ongoing search for balance, as the quest to preserve the resources at our disposal, to preserve and renew the world in which we live?” (p. 17)
It used to be assumed that only the liberal spiritual leaders sounded the environmental alarm. Now, religious leaders of almost all stripes have made this a significant issue. Rabbi Kahn, quoted above, is Orthodox. Most notably, Pope Francis has been adamant about raising awareness of the dangers of environmental carelessness. “This is our sin, exploiting the earth,” he said. Not “a sin,” but “our sin.” Earlier this year, he published an encyclical about the environment, and he addressed it to the masses, not only to his most learned clergy, as has been papal practice for centuries.
Our shul has taken small steps to respond to our sin of exploitation. On Shabbat morning, we’ll look at Jewish texts and congregational practices that underscore our mandate “to guard” the earth in step with our privilege “to work” it.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise