Lessons on Activism From the First Two Chapters of Genesis

Here are some of the important lessons on activism that I learned from the first two chapters of Genesis:

1. From Genesis 2:15, “the human being was put into the Garden of Eden to work the land and to guard (preserve) it,” I learned that I should be an environmental activist. This lesson was reinforced by Genesis 1:28, giving human beings “dominion,” because the Jewish sages interpreted dominion as responsible guardianship or stewardship. It is also reinforced by the following midrash (rabbinic commentary on the Torah):

“In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first human being [Adam],

He took him and let him pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him:

“See my works, how fine and excellent they are!

All that I have created, for you have I created them.

Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world,

For if you do, there is no one to set it right after you.”

Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:28

2. From Genesis 1:27, indicating that human beings were created in God’s image, I learned about the preciousness of every life and therefore that I should work to improve conditions for other people. Being created in God’s image also implies that people should imitate God’s attributes of compassion and justice. Since as indicated in the daily ‘baruch sheh’amar” prayer, God’s compassion is over the earth and its creatures, this reinforced the message that I should be an environmentalist and also indicated that I should work to reduce the current mistreatment of animals.

3. From the fact that initially just one person (Adam) was created, I learned many valuable lessons, including the following in a rabbinic teaching:

“Therefore was the first man, Adam, created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, the Torah considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the Torah considers it as if he saved an entire world. Furthermore, only one man, Adam, was created for the sake of peace among men, so that no one should say to his fellow, ‘my father was greater than yours…. Also, man [was created singly] to show the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, for if a man strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, made each man in the image of Adam, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obligated to say, ‘the world was created for my sake”‘ (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5).

4. From Genesis 1:31 I learned that the world that God created was “very good.” Would that God would be able to pronounce that about the world today, but one wonders what God thinks as our air and water are polluted, the world’s abundant forests and coral reefs are being destroyed, species are rapidly disappearing, and the world faces a potential climate catastrophe.

5. From Genesis 2:1 -3 I learned of the importance of Shabbat, a day of rest, renewal, and meditation. With the many environmental problems the world currently faces, perhaps there is a need for the world to have a rest period from the constant efforts to create more and more products, regardless of the consequences.

6. From Genesis 1:29, indicating that human beings were initially provided with a diet of only plant foods, I learned that I should be a vegan. This lesson is reinforced by the fact that Judaism not only pictures people as vegans during the initial time in the Garden of Eden but also during the other ideal time, the Messianic period, when “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, …, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, …, and no one shall hurt nor destroy on all of God’s holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:6-9) The lesson is further reinforced by recognizing that veganism is the diet most consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping hungry people.

7. Of course, from Genesis 1:1 I learned that God created the world, and therefore we should be very thankful for all the blessings and kindnesses He has provided and the wonderful world he has created, looking on its features, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, with “awe, wonder, and radical amazement.”

8. I also learned from the haftorah (prophetic portion read after the Torah reading) for the initial Genesis Torah reading that Jews are to be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) and God’s “witnesses” (Isaiah 43:10), impelling me to work to help create a world of justice, compassion, peace, and environmental sustainability.

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