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Earth Day 2012

(reposted from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin's Blog: http://blog.bjen.org/, dated April 22, 2012)

Below is the talk I had the privilege of delivering today at the Maryland Presbyterian Church on Providence Road, in honor of Earth Day.

Hope you all are celebrating – the earth is, with all this wonderful rain.

“Midrash” is the ancient rabbinic technique of taking tantalizing verses in the Bible and creatively unfolding and reshaping them, tucking them a bit here and tweaking them a bit there, until voila, a new meaning emerges that is deftly applied to the author’s rhetorical purpose.

The text this morning comes from such a midrash on Ecclesiastes 7:13.

“Consider all that God has done: Who can make straight what he has made crooked?”

The text’s meaning is clear. It proclaims: How powerful God is! No one and nothing can countermand his word. Yet, along came a rabbi of old who decided that he could tweak the verse just a touch – changing the meaning of just one word – and thus teach an important lesson. In doing so, he created the midrash that has become the anthem of the Jewish environmental movement today.

Why, this anonymous rabbi-of-old asked, would the God of goodness make something crooked, twisted, broken?

Rather, the verse must be referring at the end not to God, but to man: “Consider all that God has done: who will be able to straighten again that which he – mankind – makes crooked?”

With this one change in mind, from “he” meaning “God”, to “he” meaning man, the rabbi creates the following story:

"When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first human, He took him by the hand and led him around the garden, showing him all the trees.

God said to the human, 'See all my works, how good and beautiful they are? Know that all I have created, I created for you. But be mindful that you do not spoil and destroy My world – for if you do, there will be no one after you to set it right."

This is a stunning sixth-century rabbinic warning that teaches us that as big and magnificent and divinely-wrought as the natural world is, it is not indestructible, not immune to degradation by human hands.

The midrash teaches us that all creation, in all its detail, in all its particularity, is God’s work, glorious but vulnerable. Like a proud artist giving a tour of their studio, God took the human by the hand and showed him each and every tree and animal and stream and hill and the ways they all fit together.

And the human was told, all this is for you! All this I did for you! Remember, it is not impervious to harm, or steeled against ruin. It is the work that I love. Be sure to treat it well.

Note that the midrash notably and I would argue intentionally does not say: “All this I give to you.” It rather says: “All this I made for you.” This world is here for us to cherish, and use, and even improve. The human is to acknowledge it, admire it, be humbled and grateful and awed by it. It is ours to live fully with, but it is not ours to possess.

As big and magnificent and important as we humans are, we need to be humble about our place in creation. We have been given great power, and great latitude in how we use that power. We need to be mindful and deliberate and discerning so that we use our knowledge, our appetites, our curiosity, and our power for good and not for evil, for growth and not destruction.

Along with this message, it seems to me that this story is pointing to yet something a bit deeper: that in the biblical imagination, nature is not just a gift, or commodity, or necessary accessory to the good life. It is the very currency, the language, that God uses to speak with humanity. And therefore, it is the currency and language that we should use to speak back to God.

In the Bible – if we are good and God is pleased, the rains are soft and timely and come in just the right amount. If we are good and God is pleased, the land is blessed and giving; the harvests are bountiful and filling.

If we are not good and God is not pleased, the rain is hard and damaging, or sparse or absent; the land is parched and unyielding; the harvests are meager.

Deuteronomy 11 says:

13 If you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— 14 then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. 15 I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

But if not, if 16 … you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. 17 Then the LORD’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the LORD is giving you. 18

We tend to dismiss these words as quaint, outdated theological beliefs of cause and affect. After all, we moderns don’t believe as the ancients did – we know droughts and floods, extreme weather and climate change don’t come as punishment from God in response to our bad moral behavior.

Perhaps not. But it is true that our behaviors affect the natural world, that how we manage and manipulate the environment determines the abundance, availability, health and distribution of the goodness of the natural world.

It’s true that hording and wasting, taking too much and returning too little, poisoning and trashing our waters, our land and our air upsets the ebb and flow of nature and the very systems we depend on.

So, while the Bible speaks of the necessity living in good relation to God, we can extrapolate that to mean living in good relation to God’s world. That is what the midrash is teaching. Whether through theology or natural law, failure to respect the vibrancy, integrity and moral laws of nature will bring havoc to the earth and all its inhabitants. And it is we humans who will be held responsible. And, as the midrash says, there will be no one after us to set it right. And it is in the way we treat nature that our devotion to God is measured and weighed.

The midrash continues with a haunting vision:

To what might this be likened, it asks:

To a woman who is pregnant and gives birth in jail. The child is raised in jail; grows up in jail, and his mother dies in jail. One day, the king was travelling by the jail, and as he passed by the son shouts out to him and says: Oh King: it was in this prison that I was born, and it is here that I was raised, and here I live: but I ask you, by what sin have I earned this punishment of being here? And the King answers, Because your mother gave birth to you here.”

If we destroy the world, if we create out of it a prison of destruction, we curse our children with living in that destruction. That is something we cannot do.

How do we avoid it? In the very first chapters of the Bible, we read a phrase, a formula, that helps guide us in the task of living well with God’s gift, and of avoiding the fate we dare not bring about.

In Chapter Two of Genesis, in the story of the creation of Adam, the Bible tells us that:

“The LORD God took the man he had made and put him in the Garden of Eden “to work it and care for it.”

It is in this pairing of verbs, this yin/yang of purpose, this balance of consumer and protector; manipulator and preserver, that the vision of how humans should and must relate to the earth is revealed and measured.

L’ovdah ul’shomrah. To till and to tend; to work and protect. These are not to be seen as two separate, sequential tasks, doing one now and the other later: mountaintop removal here and preserving the Tetons there. Our agriculture, manufacturing, energy production, recycling, waste disposal all must be a piece of preserving and not just consuming. That is the message of living right in the Bible. That is the message we in the faith community must know and speak.

This, then, is the task of the faith community:

· To live in sync with the flow and pulse and patterns of the world

· To live humbly and joyously with God’s awesome gift

· To advance and preserve the work of creation

· To be witness to the truth that living our lives this way is a most blessed and purposeful way to be.

· And to teach the lessons of the midrash to our neighbors and children, our businessmen and politicians, our farmers and bankers, and to ourselves, saying:

'See all God’s work, how good and beautiful it is? Know that all God created, he created for us. But we must be mindful that we do not spoil and destroy it – for if we do, there will be no one after us to set it right."

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