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Shabbat Message: Serve the Earth

Friday, October 1, 2021
Posted by: Rabbi Barry Gelman

One of the grand ideas presented in the Torah is that humanity is created in God’s image.   

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכל הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃  

And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”  

וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃  

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 

While the idea sounds awesome, the Torah itself does not tell us what it means to be created in God’s image 

Rabbi Shai Held notes that in the ancient Near East, Kings were described as the images of God. Kings were God’s representatives on earth. This is what gives kings the right to rule over others. 

The Torah comes along and dramatically alters the message of what it means to be human. Rabbi Held comments that by teaching that we are all created in God’s image the Torah is offering a “radical democratization of ancient Near Eastern royal ideology. We are, the Torah insists, all kings and queens, 

Once it is established that all of humanity are kings and queens, what is left is to describe the nature of the royal power that every person is endowed with. 

For some, the image of royalty is one of absolute power, oppression and abuse.  It is this view that has led to the belief that humanity is permitted to use the earth’s natural resources for human benefit without any limits.  

But there is another way to view royalty and thus another way to think about our relationship to the earth. 

Here again, Rabbi Held offers a beautiful idea by noting that the prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel) is sent by God to chastise the kings of Israel who have forgone their responsibility to act as “shepherds” to Israel and instead have been “tending to themselves.”  

The Prophet goes on: 

אֶת־הַחֵ֤לֶב תֹּאכֵ֙לוּ֙ וְאֶת־הַצֶּ֣מֶר תִּלְבָּ֔שׁוּ הַבְּרִיאָ֖ה תִּזְבָּ֑חוּ הַצֹּ֖אן לֹ֥א תִרְעֽוּ׃  

You partake of the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, and you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not tend the flock 

אֶֽת־הַנַּחְלוֹת֩ לֹ֨א חִזַּקְתֶּ֜ם וְאֶת־הַחוֹלָ֣ה לֹֽא־רִפֵּאתֶ֗ם וְלַנִּשְׁבֶּ֙רֶת֙ לֹ֣א חֲבַשְׁתֶּ֔ם וְאֶת־הַנִּדַּ֙חַת֙ לֹ֣א הֲשֵׁבֹתֶ֔ם  

You have not sustained the weak, healed the sick, or bandaged the injured; you have not brought back the strayed, 

וְאֶת־הָאֹבֶ֖דֶת לֹ֣א בִקַּשְׁתֶּ֑ם וּבְחזְקָ֛ה רְדִיתֶ֥ם אֹתָ֖ם וּבְפָֽרֶךְ׃  

or looked for the lost; but you have driven them with harsh rigor,  

וַתְּפוּצֶ֖ינָה מִבְּלִ֣י רֹעֶ֑ה וַתִּהְיֶ֧ינָה לְכְלָ֛ה לְל־חַיַּ֥ת הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה וַתְּפוּצֶֽינָה׃  

and they have been scattered for want of anyone to tend them; scattered, they have become prey for every wild beast.  

יִשְׁגּ֤וּ צֹאנִי֙ בְּכל־הֶ֣הָרִ֔ים וְעַ֖ל כּל־גִּבְעָ֣ה רָמָ֑ה וְעַ֨ל כּל פְּנֵ֤י הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ נָפֹ֣צוּ צֹאנִ֔י וְאֵ֥ין דּוֹרֵ֖שׁ וְאֵ֥ין מְבַקֵּֽשׁ׃  

My sheep stray through all the mountains and over every lofty hill; My flock is scattered all over the face of the earth, with none to take thought of them and none to seek them 

These verses teach us what it really means to be a king or a queen. It amounts to an obligation to take care of those we rule over, including the earth. 

If this is true, what about Genesis 1:28 that states:

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

“God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” 

This verse speaks of dominion, not devotion, conquest, not care. 

The answer is that we must realize that human dominance over the earth comes with responsibility. The call to master the world does not contradict the requirement to shepherd it and to serve as a caretaker.  

Rabbi Soloveitchik comes to the same conclusion by analyzing a different text. “The close, intimate association between man and earth is already formulated in unequivocal terms. The earth serves man; as long as there was no man, vegetative life did not emerge. On the other hand, man serves the earth: he is her servant and slave.  La-avod is the term for “service”; the expression la-avod et ha-adamah and le-ovdah u-le-shomrah both mean “to serve the earth”. Paradoxically, man both serves Mother Earth and subdues her (Gen. 1:28). Apparently, there prevails harmony between Mother Earth and her children. They both need each other. There is cooperation and accord. Why? Because man was created out of the earth; there was a common ontic basis of man's existence and nature - reality. There was correspondence, mutual response and cooperation.  (The Emergence of Ethical Man pg. 53) 

In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s hands the verse: 

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשׁמְרָֽהּ׃  

“The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to work it and cultivate it. (Gen. 2:15)”, takes on new meaning.  Le-ovdah does not mean to “work” in the sense of deriving as much benefit from it as possible. Le-ovdah actually has the opposite meaning, in this case “to serve”, to act in ways that represent the best interests of the earth!  

In his essay Rabbi Held quotes Norman Wirzba who adds an important element. “Despite the desire that many have for greater species equality, the fact of the matter is that we are, because of our spiritual endowment or potential and our technological prowess, masters of this earth. The issue is not how we will shed ourselves of our unique potential and responsibility, but how we will transform it for good. 

It is our very dominance that burdens us with responsibility. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik and Wirzba remind us that we should embrace our exalted station even as we are duty bound to find ways to elevate our position so that ultimately, we are worthy of it. 

PLEASE SHARE: I would love to hear how you "serve the earth". I hope to collect some ideas and share them with the community. By sharing ideas, we can improve our stewardship of nature. Email me at bgelman@erjcchouston.org 

Shabbat Shalom. 

Rabbi Gelman 

Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the ERJCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism.  

Category: ERJCC Blog

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