Genesis: The story of creation, a message of diversity

Creation being called “good,” during the first five days of creation, reminds us of the value of our world’s multiplicity.

Some of the 'Cool Globes' on display near Jerusalem's O;d City in 2013 to raise awareness of climate change.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Some of the 'Cool Globes' on display near Jerusalem's O;d City in 2013 to raise awareness of climate change.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Simhat Torah marks the end of the multi-week holiday season beginning every Jewish year. These weeks are book-ended with a focus on the earth. On Rosh Hashanah, we declared, Ha-yom harat olam: today the world was conceived; on Simhat Torah, we read about the creation of the world in the first chapter of Sefer Beresheet, the Book of Genesis. This particular Jewish New Year, falling a week after the United Nations Climate Action Summit along with the worldwide Global Climate Strike, underscores the importance of the numerous environmental messages in the Torah.
The opening verses of Genesis not only include the account of the creation of the earth, but over and over tell us of the importance of diversity. Creation being called “good,” during the first five days of creation, reminds us of the value of our world’s multiplicity. The text also teaches, by describing everything created before humans as “good,” that all things have intrinsic value in and of themselves beyond any value that we place on them. Once humans are created, “very good” is the adjective applied by the text. An anthropocentric reading of the text would say this is because the world was created for our needs, and once we are in place we can do what we want with the world. A biocentric reading of the text says that “very good” only means that creation at that moment was complete and humans were the last piece of the biological puzzle. Being created last comes with immense responsibility in how we must care for all that was created before us. Our home is a small, fragile, magnificent oasis in the vastness of the universe. The Psalmist (24:1-2) writes, “The earth belongs to the Lord, and everything on it.” The earth is on loan. When someone loans us something, we take special care of it.
Care for the environment can also be a mirror. If we are kind and compassionate to the land, we will be more kind and compassionate to each other; and if we are kinder to each other we will be kinder to the land. In this light we can understand the connection between letting the land rest in the sabbatical year along with the release of debt and slaves that same year. That kindness must also be extended to those who differ with us on climate change – climate cancer.
THE DISPROPORTIONATE evidence convinces scientists that climate change has been caused by humans. However, “scientifically proven” is too often misunderstood. Science gets us closer and closer to the truth. Science is the best understanding of a particular phenomenon at a particular moment in human history, knowing that our understanding will continue to increase. The example in climate change is that the models that predict what has and may happen are increasingly more sophisticated; we are much better about predicting now than we were 30 years ago.
Dr. Elizabeth Sherman, professor of Biology at Bennington College, explains: “Scientists continue to discuss and argue about the specific mechanisms of human-caused climate change that explain it; they continue to refine their understanding of the mechanisms. In the climate change debate, elevating voices which deny that humans are the main cause of climate change is not supported by the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence.” In Halacha (Jewish law), an elder sage is called a zaken mamre (rebellious scholar) if he instruct others to follow a minority opinion.
Jacob Bronowski wrote: “All knowledge – all information between human beings – can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance... the realization that all knowledge is limited. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.” By inference, Bronowski reminds us not to demonize those we disagree with; we must eliminate such toxicity from our discourse.
Human beings are a family, with the potential and complexities that come with being a family. We look for guidance. As we start anew the annual rereading of the Torah on Simhat Torah, we are reminded of the direction it can give to our lives. At the end of the first chapter of Genesis we read: “Fill the earth and conquer it,” (1:28), while in the next chapter we are told to “cultivate and guard” the earth (2:15). In light of the environmental movement, the second verse is easily preferred. However, Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his brilliant essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” addresses those two different orientations towards the environment and teaches that we humans encompass both, and we cannot escape that reality. Elaborating, Rabbi Johnathan Sacks recently wrote in a piece called “The Ecological Imperative” that: “What is distinctive about humans as a species is precisely our godlike powers of dominating nature and exercising control of the forces that shape the physical world. This is a matter of fact, not value... Genesis 2, by contrast, is about morality and responsibility. It tells us about the moral limits of power. Not everything we can do may we do. We have the power but not the permission; we have the ability but not the right. The earth is not ours.”
In the same writing, he reminds us that the word “cultivate” in Hebrew, le’ovdah, is related to the word servant. That is to say, we are not the master of the environment, we are its servant! Every Jewish New Year season, within the liturgy mentioned above, we are reminded that our master, the Earth, is calling us; it is time to listen to that voice. 

The writer, rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont, teaches at Bennington College, as well as the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura, Israel.