The first two chapters of Genesis contain teachings with profound relevance for
ourselves and our world today. After creating Adam and Eve, God blesses them,
saying "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have
dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every
living thing that moves upon the earth." What does it mean for humans to subdue
the earth and have dominion over other creatures?
One of the central precepts of
Rabbinic Judaism is that the Written Torah must be understood within the context
of the 2,300 year-old rabbinic tradition (including the Midrash and other works)
that interprets it. While on the surface the words of this verse appear to give
people license to degrade and subdue the earth, the Oral tradition makes clear
that a wholly different message is being conveyed.
The Midrash teaches, “Rabbi Chanina said, ‘if
he [the human being] merits it then [God says] have dominion, while if he does
not merit, then [God says] he will be taken down.’ This teaching links human
dominion of creation to humanity’s righteousness: if humanity merits through its
righteousness, then it shall rule over nature. But if it does not merit because
it does not act in an upright fashion, then humanity itself will descend and not
be granted rulership over nature.
Another Midrash makes clear that part of human
righteousness involves being stewards of the earth. The Midrash says that God
showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at my works! See how
beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it
that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one
else to repair it.” Acting righteously thus involves treating the world with
utmost respect; for this the human will merit dominion of creation.
Sears writes that the blessing to dominate “comprises a form of stewardship for
which humanity is answerable to God. Both Talmudic and Kabbalistic sources state
that it is forbidden to kill any creature unnecessarily, or to engage in wanton
destruction of the Earth’s resources… The divine mandate for man to dominate the
natural world is a sacred trust, not a carte blanche for destructiveness.”
the Torah, the order of domination is fish-birds-animals: “have dominion over
the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing
that moves upon the earth." The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz)
explains that man has a greater ability to rule over land animals than birds
(out of reach in the sky), and fish (out of reach and out of sight, in the sea).
If humans do not merit, then not only will they not dominate the fish, which are
harder to catch, but also the birds and animals, which are easier.
glaring contrast emerges between the Kli Yakar’s 17th century description of the
limited human capacity for domination of the animals, birds and fish of the
natural world and what we know about the ability of contemporary society to
dominate the land, air, and sea of planet earth.
For example, while the Kli
Yakar emphasizes that fish are not visible to people, sonar, satellite data and
the Global Positioning System (GPS) enable fishermen to effectively “see” giant
schools of fish with pinpoint accuracy. According to a study led by researchers
at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, these changes have
contributed to a dramatic fall in fish populations in all of the world's oceans.
When human mastery grows such that we seriously deplete the numbers of a
particular fish, our continued access to this fish quickly diminishes. Our lack
of righteousness leads us to lose our domination of this resource in the
Rabbi Daniel Kohn links the blessing to subdue (kivshuha) in our
verse with the Mishna’s use of “subdue” in the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke
Avot), in which Ben Zoma teaches, “Who is strong? The person who subdues their
inclinations.” Spiritual discipline comprises true strength. A person must
decide in their own life which desires to subdue and which desires to bring to
Jewish tradition teaches us that we only merit the opportunity to
rule the earth if we behave righteously. This includes the spiritual discipline
to use our resources wisely, and subdue with a sense of moral responsibility. In
our times, we have demonstrated our ability to subdue the earth. A central
question facing humanity concerns whether we will exhibit the strength to rein
in our desires. If we do not, we may be taken down by our lack of righteousness.
May we summon the strength to conquer our short-term desires, live with
righteousness, and merit an enlightened dominion of the planet God created.
These materials are posted as part of Jewcology’s “Year of Jewish Learning on
the Environment,” in partnership with Canfei Nesharim. Learn more at
Yonatan Neril founded and directs Jewish Eco Seminars, which engages and
educates the Jewish community with Jewish environmental wisdom. He has worked
with Canfei Nesharim for the past six years in developing educational resources
relating to Judaism and the environment.