Earth Etude for Elul 3 – Environmental Etude
by Rabbi Sam Yolen~
At this point in time, to write something about the environment has to be more of a “in commemoration of” than a “dedicated to” exercise. We’ve been standing at the juncture of run-away environmental change for longer than I can remember, and the patience of the Earth to absorb our species’ immaturity has indeed turned into vengeance. From fracking the Earth’s crust to clear cutting forests, we’ve done things that most ancient cultures would find unfathomable — real crimes against the future of humanity. The biblical truth that sinful blood can poison the land may be much for our modern sensitivities, yet ecologists are raising the same spiritual concerns: that our actions have polluted the land beyond repair. As the Bible warns us, this pollution is held longer than the third and fourth generations.
It is in these dire scientific observations that I ruminate on my place in the order of the world. Specifically: What qualifications does humankind have to be stewardship of the Earth? If you ask the Bible, it would be an explicit promise made to Adam, “Master the earth.” If you ask an evolutionary biologist, the simple qualification for dominion over the Earth is a voice box and opposable thumbs. We are a species with a brain less evolved than many other animals, our only difference is our ability to make tools. And to coordinate our behavior.
I write this etude to the environment acknowledging that my computer is my tool. Technology such as this computer would have been impossible to create if not for the vast quantity of precious resources and the many trained experts who invested in a supply chain larger than my ability to conceptualize. I pray that the effects of my own actions, my diet, my transportation, my lifestyle, this very computer that I write on, are in some way redeemable to a higher power. My work on Earth is meaningful if I struggle to put meaning into it – while being aware of the messy arrangements of my sustenance, I pray that I give more love than I take in. I pray that the future we share together on this planet is never bereft of joy.
Famous biblical commentators interpret environmental responsibility in a more modern way. Rashi explains that if we warrant creation, we are allowed to master it. If we don’t warrant it, we destroy it. And the uniquely human dilemma of knowing something is wrong, but being incapable to solve it individually, is ironic. It’s also quite refreshingly prophetic. How many Jewish Bible heroes rally criticism on Biblical Israel, knowing full well their warnings fall on deaf ears? That their purpose and mission is a futile one? Man plans and God laughs.
In regards to the stifling inertia of progress, the real purpose of the modern ecological prophet is to bear witness. To hold the emotions that others cannot. To recognize that individuals may be trapped in their rational mind, incapable of perceiving truth because it is a meditation on destruction that is just too hard to intellectualize. We must be compassionate to that. And still, we must not run from the light, but face it with integrity. This is our mess, and these are our sacred stories. If there needs to be a Bible, then there needs to be an environment to sustain it.
In the name of God, as we turn our poetry from “Dedicated to Nature,” to “In memory of Nature” we are practicing the sacred art of intercession. We are continuing the holy tradition that pleads with God and humanity: postpone our species punishment for the Holocene extinction. At least imbue our species with a brain large enough to break the fall from grace we are witnessing. Restore us to the days of old. Maybe so far back that we remember your promise in the Garden of Eden
And if the world of tomorrow still contains joy, all the witnessing in the world will be worth it.
Rabbi Sam Yolen is the student Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom at Hastings on Hudson. He is the Judaic Direct of Camp Modim in Belgrade Maine. Rabbi Yolen is from Ridgefield, Connecticut.