On Nature and Responsibility: Reflections on Parashat Bereishit
by Daniella Elyashar, Assistant Director
Parashat Bereishit starts with the most beautiful depiction of the universe. The descriptions of the lights, stars, planets, waters, plants and living creatures help readers imagine a vibrant, exquisite landscape of nature. God ends almost every day of creation with a clear, positive observation about the hard work: “וירא אלוהים כי טוב“- “…And God saw that this was good.” (Genesis 1:10)
The last psukim (verses) of the first perek (chapter) in Bereishit describe the creation of the first human being, Adam. In God’s eyes this is not only good; it is very good: “וירא אלוהים את כל אשר עשה והינה טוב מאוד” – “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good.” (1:31). This distinction poses an obvious question: why is the first human created described as “very good,” while the magnificent and vast nature is only defined as “good”?
In the Kli Yakar (Torah commentary, 16th-17th Century, Prague) it is explained that the distinction is “…to teach that all of the creations were not created but for the sake of man. And even though it is stated, ‘that it was good’ for all of them, it was stated based on the future; but they were not yet in their completeness and ‘goodness’ until man – for whose sake they came into existence – was created.” It goes on to clarify the word “כי” (as in “ki tov,” “this was good”), noting that it is related to time. In this case, כי is an indication that all nature created is not yet good; it will only fully reach goodness once people are created. (Kli Yakar’s comment on 1:31)
We could end the parashah thinking that that is the whole story: God created all this beautiful world for humans to do as they wish in it, and nature isn’t even deserving of a positive adjective without our human existence. But a quick look through a few additional psukim presents an additional layer regarding the relationship between humans and nature.
When God places Adam in the Garden of Eden, the reasoning is straightforward: “לעבדה ולשמרה”.… “to till it and tend it.“ (2:15). God does not explicitly explain this to Adam. Perhaps it is obvious to God that nature needs tending to by humans, and so God doesn’t bother telling Adam what his relationship with nature should be.
This idea was carefully placed in the beginning of the Torah reading cycle, way before people started thinking about climate change. This parashah almost warns us about a one- sided relationship with nature and sets a preliminary moral standard; mutual relationship between humans and nature is of most importance to God.
The rest of this parashah includes several moral conflicts, such as Adam and Eve defying an explicit order from God and Cain killing his brother over pure jealously. While the sins of the first human beings are quite obvious, in both cases, God looks for a confession to their mistakes before even addressing their wrongdoings. But here too, it can be argued that God never explicitly said to the first humans that they must have the decency to own up to their mistakes. To God, honesty and responsibility are such obvious moral standards that God expects that these four human beings would live up to these standards without having to receive direct orders.
This brings us back to the implicit expectations God has of us humans from day one (or six). From this parashah, we can see that these include having a relationship with nature and taking responsibility for our wrongdoings. With climate change having such a deep impact on the world, it is time that we consider these implicit and moral expectations of us as human beings: respecting our beautiful planet, tending to its needs and taking responsibility for our actions.
It is exciting to think about being together in 242 days in our beautiful piece of nature in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. I hope we can take this Shabbat and the beginning of a new cycle of Torah reading to think about the beautiful space we call our home away from home. I hope we think about the ways in which we hold ourselves accountable to preserving not only the obvious beauty of the agam (lake) and Kikar, but of the importance of our relationship with nature.