Earth Etude for Elul 25: “If the world is created for my sake…”

by Rabbi David Seidenberg

According to tradition this day (the 25th of Elul) is when the Creation of the world began – six days before Rosh Hashanah.

According to the Mishnah, every person should believe, “the world was created for my sake”. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

But what does this mean? That we can do whatever we want with the world because it is ours, or that I can do whatever I want because the world is *mine*? On the contrary, says Rebbe Nachman. He explains, “Since the world is created for my sake, I need to see and look in every moment into repairing the world (tikkun ha’olam), and to replenish what the world lacks, and to pray on their behalf.” (Likutei Moharan 1:5)

Imagine the holy chutzpah Rebbe Nachman had, to take one of the most anthropocentric teachings in the whole of rabbinic tradition and turn it into a teaching about humility and service! That’s the kind of chutzpah we need now to face the pandemic, and the kind of chutzpah we need to meet the challenge of global climate disruption. 

Yechiel Mikhel ben Uzziel (d. 1730), gave us a related teaching about the world being created for “my sake”:

The purpose of Creation was for the sake of the human being to have free choice, in order that there be punishment and reward. And the reward and the punishment are not from the perspective of whether one has benefited the Holy One, God forbid, as if there could be some usefulness or harm to God from the actions of a person… rather it is from the perspective of benefiting the world and settling it (tikkun ha’olam viy’shuvo), for the righteous benefit the world (m’taknim ha’olam) through their actions, while the wicked are destroying it and turning it back into chaos and void, and limiting the flow of divine abundance (shefa). (Nezer Hakodesh 53a)

Here is more holy chutzpah: if you think that the world was created as a test for you, know that that the test is whether you live your life to benefit the world. And the measure is this: are your actions increasing the abundance of Life-energy available to the world and all its creatures? 

Maimonides also teaches us to have holy chutzpah. Imagine, he says, that the whole world stands in the balance between merit and guilt, and that your actions will tip the scales to the side of merit or the side of guilt. (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot T’shuvah 3:4

These three teachers each tell us to re-center ourselves: if all the world is created for my sake, then it all depends on me, on my next choice. How will you choose?

Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg is the creator of and the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World. He has completed groundbreaking research on many issues, including not only ecology but also tikkun olam and animal rights, and is well-known as a liturgist and translator. He has smikha from both JTS and Reb Zalman. David lives in Northampton MA.

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