A DAY OF RECKONING
ACKNOWLEDGING OUR CAPACITY TO NURTURE AND DESPOIL THE EARTH
In June, while taking a few days break in Cornwall, Jess and I visited the Eden Project at Bodelva, just off the A390, a few miles north of St Austell Bay. As the web-site puts it: “The Eden Project exists to explore our dependence on the natural world, rebuilding connections of understanding that have faded from many peoples lives” (1). Just ten years ago, the Eden Project ‘Green Team’ took over a derelict tin-mining site, fit only for gorse to grow, and since that time through careful planning; sourcing and planting, have nurtured over a million plants from every part of the world. This means that when you enter this new Eden, you can wander from the ‘Mediterranean’ to the ‘Tropics’ – or vice versa – each region recreated in its own huge ‘bio-dome’. We were fortunate that it was raining on the day we visited because the Tropics bio-dome was quite warm enough without the sun beating down on it!
The Eden Project is much more than a giant green theme park. Its aim is to educate people about the natural world, and through its exhibits, programmes, projects, events and workshops contribute to creating “a culture” that, as the web-sit puts it, “knows how to sustain the things that sustain us and at the same time nurtures creativity, imagination and adaptability.”
But that’s not all. In response to “unprecedented change” across the globe, which includes “revolutions in science and in the economic and political maps of the world alongside threats such as pandemics and the ‘demographic time-bomb’ on top… of the challenge of climate change”, the Eden Project ‘Green Team’ has launched “Climate Revolution”, a remarkable climate change programme to meet what they see as “a level of social change” needed “equivalent to the industrial revolution”.
We have all heard a lot about ‘climate change’; the Eden Project has identified some of the key challenges that climate change produces, “ranging from the need to address environmental refugees or find new energy technologies to the question of how to finance infrastructure changes for more unpredictable weather.” What is so inspiring about the Eden Project is that it not only addresses the problems, it is also working out the solutions, and so the “Climate Revolution” encompasses “educational projects with schools, the exploration of new technologies for a low carbon world, research projects, climate-related events, conferences and training sessions and public events such as the first ever Green Car Show”
We can all get very depressed about the ‘state of the world’; the Eden Project tackles the issues head on – and, even more important, focuses on how we can deal with them; it is practical, up-beat and very compelling. But there is a sense in which it is important for us not only to address the specific problems that the world faces, but also to explore our human culpability for these problems – and to ask, what is it about us – Homo sapiens; the human species – that we have got the world into such a mess? There are lots of ways of responding to this question, depending on your point of view or area of expertise. I would like to offer a Jewish response – which seems rather appropriate given that it is the biblically named, ‘Eden Project’, that is leading the way in showing us how to sort out the mess we’ve made.
The Garden of Eden – in Hebrew: gan eden. According to the Torah, that is where the first human beings took their first steps. Of course, it’s a ‘story’ – but it’s not only a story. And in fact there are two stories – two accounts of the Creation of the world – but more of that in a moment. So, the first habitation for humanity was a garden – not a mountain, a valley or a plain; not a jungle or a desert – not, in other words, simply some part of the natural landscape; rather: a garden. What is a garden? A cultivated space; a place where nature has been tamed and shaped and nurtured – by human beings. The people of Britain know all about gardens; gardening is one of our national past-times. Gardening involves digging and planting and weeding, pruning and watering. We read in Genesis chapter 2, verse 15: ‘The Eternal God took the human being and put [the human being] into the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it – l’ovdah u’l’shomrah.
So, the first human being was a gardener – and more than this. We read a few verses earlier: ‘The Eternal God formed the human being out of the dust of the ground’ (2:7). The English is clear – but the Hebrew is clearer: ‘The Eternal God formed ha-adam – the human being – out of the dust of ha-adamah – the ground’. We could say that the human-being is an earthling – if that word did not carry with it confusing sci-fi connotations (2). What does it tell us about what it is to be human: that we are one with the ground? Interestingly, the words adam and adamah are both related to the Hebrew word for ‘blood’, dam: the red earth; the human being pulsating with blood – and something more: the text tells us that ha-adam is a ‘living being’ – nefesh chayyah (ibid.). Again: the Hebrew is more instructive than the English. Later on, following the great Flood, when humanity and the earth must make a new beginning, Noah is instructed by God: ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; like all the green vegetation I have given you; / only flesh with its being – nefesh – which is its blood, you shall not eat’ (9:3-4). In the Torah, nefesh means ‘being’ rather than ‘soul’; the concept of the soul, which emerges in rabbinic writings, is influenced by Greek philosophy. And so, nefesh is real matter – hence, ‘blood’. And nefesh is not unique to humanity: all creatures have a nefesh – which is why we must not eat blood. Indeed, earlier, in the first account of Creation, we read that every creature is a ‘living being’ – nefesh chayyah (1:21).
So, adam is not only one with adamah the ‘ground’; adam is also, like all other living creatures, a nefesh chayyah. Everything in the garden is rosy it seems. But of course it isn’t. The verses from the Noah story I just quoted hint at the problem: Why is it that after the Flood humanity is permitted to eat flesh – basar – albeit without the blood – the nefesh? We read in the first account of Creation that God has given all the vegetation and all the fruit as food, both, for humanity and for the animals (1:29-30) – so what’s changed? A rational answer to this question might be that the plants and trees simply didn’t survive the forty days and nights of rain, so, a new food source was required. But this response misses the opportunity to comment on why there was a Flood in the first place. The Torah tells us that God brought the Flood because the earth was ‘ruined’: ‘for all flesh had ruined their way upon the earth’ (6:12) and ‘the earth was filled with violence through them’ (:13).
Ruin and violence: The Hebrew terms are based on the roots, Shin Chet Tav – to ruin, corrupt, destroy – and Chet Mem Sameich – to treat violently or wrong. Ruin and Violence: this more or less sums up the state we’re in now, doesn’t it? We are ruining the earth; wherever we go, we perpetrate violence. The only difference is that when the next great Flood comes – or maybe it will be a great drought or another Ice Age – most people will understand that rather than being ‘acts of God’, these disasters will be very much of our own making – which is, of course, what the biblical account is really teaching us: If it hadn’t been for the ruin and violence inflicted by Noah’s generation, there would never have been a Flood.
But how is it that we went from working and tending a garden to wreaking such destruction – then and now? I’ve mentioned a few times that there are two accounts of Creation in the Torah. The first is the well-known Creation in seven days version recounted in Genesis chapter 1 and the first three verses of chapter 2. Controversially, there are ‘Creationists’ – biblical fundamentalists – who insist that the account describes actual events in real time. But what’s really controversial about this version in my view is not that it speaks of seven days – which, after all, can be understood to mean seven epochs – but, rather, the rigidly hierarchical nature of the account, which posits humanity at the apex. We read (Genesis 1:26-28):
God said, ‘Let us make humanity – adam – in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. / So God created adam in His own image, in the image of God He created it (oto); male and female he created them (otam). / Then God blessed them; and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply. And fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.’
According to the first Creation account in the Torah, God blesses humanity – not only with fertility, but also with capacity to subdue the earth and have dominion over it and everything in it. What a message! Is it any wonder that this Master Race felt – and continues to feel, it seems – licensed to do anything? But there’s something even more troubling: The text suggests that exercising this special role of Mastery is a direct consequence of being an ‘image of God’. Is this what it means to be created in God’s image – to trammel the rest of Creation into submission? Is God a domineering Master, too?
Well, yes – but not only that: God is also a potter, forming adam out of the red dust of the ground – and adam is also a nefesh chayyah, a living being, at one with the other creatures, whose special task it is to be a gardener, working and maintaining the earth. God has two dimensions, and humanity, too: Master – and servant; to work the ground, l’ovdah, based on the root letters Ayin Beit Dalet also means to serve the ground; elsewhere in the Torah an eved is a servant, or, as the Exodus story relates, a slave.
But it’s actually more complex than this binary view would suggest. If we return to the second account of the creation of adam, we find that the complete verse says: ‘The Eternal God formed ha-adam – the human – out of the dust of ha-adamah – the ground – and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life – nishmat chayyim – and ha-adam became a nefesh chayyah – a living being (Genesis 2:7). ‘The breath of life’ – nishmat chayyim: Here we are shown another aspect of what it means to be created b’tzelem Elohim – ‘in the image of God’; to be an ‘image of God’ is to be infused with God’s breath. As the story of Moses and the burning bush suggests (Exodus 3), it is impossible to capture God. When Moses asks for God’s name, so he can tell the slaves, who sent him, when he returns to Egypt, the answer he receives is, as Gabriel Josipovici has observed, ‘as near as we can get in language to pure breath’ (3): Ehyeh asher Ehyeh (3:14). The translation: ‘I am that I am’ or I will be what I will be’ – the Hebrew can be translated either in the present or the future – while indicating the ‘being-ness’ of the Eternal One, misses a more fundamental point. As Gabriel Josipovici puts it: ‘God…. also indicates by his palindromic utterance, with its repeated ‘h’ and ‘sh’ sounds, that his is the breath that lies beneath all utterance and all action, a living breath… (ibid.)
Unlike the English translation, Ehyeh expresses the sense that the Eternal One is ‘a living breath’ infusing humanity with nishmat chayyim – ‘the breath of life’ – ‘the breath that lies beneath all utterance and all action’, which also means that humanity, like God, has the power to create and to destroy, to nurture and to despoil – and, not or. It would be so much simpler – and nicer – if we could somehow make the nasty, domineering, destructive dimension of our humanity disappear. But we can’t; like breath, like air, both dimensions are one and indivisible; what is more the energy that makes for creativity is also the energy that wreaks chaos; just think of the other elements: fire and water; both, simultaneously, forces of creation and destruction.
Alternatively, ponder what the rabbis had to say about the two ‘inclinations’: the yeitzer tov, the ‘good’ inclination’ and the yeitzer ra the ‘evil inclination’. Born with the capacity for good and evil – a yeitzer tov and a yeitzer ra – we might think that living a constructive existence involves suppressing our evil impulses in favour of our good ones. The early rabbis, who formulated these concepts, discussed the nature and problematic consequences of the yeitzer ra at length, but they also recognised that the impulses represented by the ‘evil inclination’ are necessary to life. And so we read in Midrash B’reishit Rabbah, a commentary on Genesis: ‘Without it [that is, the yeitzer ra] a human being would never marry, beget children, build a house, or engage in trade’ (9:7). Significantly, the Hebrew word yeitzer is connected to the word that tells us that God formed – va-yyitzer – ha-adam out of ha-adamah. Unlike the more abstract concept, ‘create’, as in ‘God created – bara – the human being in His own image’ (1:27), to form is to mould, to fashion – like the potter kneading clay. So: the yeitzer tov; the yeitzer ra – both inclinations are like that: tangible, malleable, endlessly changeable and changing; melding into one another; producing new forms.
So, where does this leave us right now, on the day that the rabbis called harat olam, ‘the birthday of the world? As we consider the good works wrought by the Eden Project and all the other initiatives directed at taking responsibility for the planet and limiting the damage that we’ve done to it, we know that the birthday of the world is a day of reckoning; that’s why we are here, and why we return to this gateway of renewal each year to make a journey that is all about returning – to God, to one another, to ourselves; that’s why we take this annual opportunity to reflect on our actions – so that we may find a new way, a new path, a new direction. As the alphabetical litany of our failures, we recite on Yom Kippur expresses it: rashanu, shichatnu, ti’avnu, ta’inu, titanu – ‘we have dealt wickedly, we have ruined, we have acted abominably, we have gone astray and led others astray’ – all of us – collectively and individually. May the sound of the Shofar – the ram’s horn that is completely inert until it is infused with breath – stir within us the will to harness all of our energies to the task of healing ourselves, restoring our relationships and repairing our world. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Rosh Ha-Shanah Shacharit 5770 – 19th September 2009
2. The term ‘earthling’ is originally from Old English eorðe (ground, soil, dry land) and the suffix -ling (from Old English -ol, -ul, -el; and -ing, meaning “a person or thing of a specific kind or origin”. First used in 1593, earthling (or worldling) referred to a mortal inhabitant of earth as opposed to one from heaven or the underworld (Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 27 Jul. 2008. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=earthling). The first use of the word in the contemporary sense was by science fiction author, Robert A. Heinlein, in Red Planet, 1949. (The Heinlein Society, http://www.heinleinsociety.org/)
3. The Book of God. A Response to the Bible. Yale University Press, 1988, p.74