Shomer Adamah: Humanity's Relationship with the Earth

Jeremy Rosenberg

Before we even get to today’s topic of environmental crisis and what our response should be, we really need to address a more fundamental question: Does the environment really belong to man, and is man given complete control to do what he wants with it? Or, alternatively, was the environment given to man specifically for him to safeguard and nurture it? The big picture question for us really boils down to this: What is man’s relationship vis a vis the Earth?

A.     Let’s take a look at what the Bible has to say about this. In Genesis Chapter 2 Verse 15, it says, “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and to guard it.” The verse gives man two distinct directives: to cultivate and to guard. To guard something is to preserve it, to protect it, to feel a responsibility towards what one has been given. To cultivate something is to foster its growth, to encourage, develop, and improve it.

What, then, could it mean to guard the earth, and what does it mean to cultivate it?

Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, in an address given in 1986, gives us some clues. He notes that “The essence of modern secular culture is the notion of human sovereignty; individual man is master over himself, and collective man is master over his collective.  [But] The basis of any religious perception of human existence is the sense that man is not a master: neither a master over the world around him, nor a master over himself.”

Now, if man is not the master of the world, then who is? Psalms Chapter 24 Verse 1 tells us: “The earth is the Lords, and all that it holds. The world and all its people belong to Him.” We can claim to own something, but in reality, according to this verse, it all belongs to God. Hmm. Ok, so this verse certainly makes it seem like we don’t really have any dominion over the earth.

While that much is very clear, we have a slight problem. There is another verse later in Psalms Chapter 115 that directly contradicts it. There, it says: “As for the heavens-the heavens are the Lord’s, but the earth he has given to mankind.

Ok, so which one is it? Does the earth belong to God or to man?

The Talmud picks up on this apparent problem and offers a solution. In Trachot Brachot, or Blessings, Page 35: A, Rabbi Levi says here, the verse which states that the Earth belongs to the Lord refers to before one recites a blessing. Whereas here, in the verse which states that the Lord has given the earth to man, refers to after one recites a blessing.

According to Rabbi Samuel Eidels, a commentator on the Talmud, everything in the world was created to bring glory to God, through blessings. Therefore, to enjoy something without a blessing is not glory for God. A person who enjoys something without first reciting a blessing is regarded as if he stole from God, so to speak. When he does make a blessing, he recognizes God’s sovereignty and ownership, and is entitled to use the item.

The concept that man has permission to use the land, but that it ultimately belongs to God, is evident in the laws of the Sabbath. Every 7 days, a farmer may not work his land. For 6 days, the land is completely ours, but 1 day a week, we take a rest from it. We rest, because God, as it were, rested on the 7th day of creation.

A similar law exists with shmitta, the sabbatical year. As the verse in Exodus Chapter 23 (Verse 10) tell us: “And six years you shall sow your land and gather its produce; but the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow.”

Humans rest every 7 days, while the earth, so to speak, rests every 7 years. These verses show us that while we are certainly entitled to use the land, we have periodic reminders that it ultimately really belongs to God.

Rabbi Lichtenstein goes on to note that aside from this view of guarding something as recognizing who it really belongs to, there is an additional aspect to it. When Man was placed in the Garden to work and guard it, against whom was it being guarded? The animals were part of the Garden, and there was no one else there! Rather, you guard something which you value and appreciate; you hover over it constantly…Think about the guards outside of Buckingham Palace. They aren’t actually guarding it from invaders. They’re there for its glory.

In this sense, we must feel like we are guards, or sentries, here to protect and even bring honor to the earth.

            What does a guard have to do? He must be alert. One guards with intelligence. When he combines intelligence and alertness with a sense of duty - then he will be a successful guard.

B.     Recall that we said there are 2 directives given to man in the second chapter in Genesis: to guard and to cultivate. We have discussed briefly what it means to guard the earth. Now, what does it mean to cultivate it?

The word in Hebrew, “l’ovdah,” can also be translated as “to work it.”  One possible explanation is that this is speaking of man’s normal contribution to the earth. Simply put, Man needs to work the land in order to keep it fresh and replenished. Recall that this is exactly what God said to Man in Genesis Chapter 1 Verse 28, when he is told to “replenish the earth, and subdue it.” Man is directed to have dominion in this world, and part of that includes working the land and being master over the earth.

As Rabbi Lichtenstein concludes, “According to this approach, we are all commanded to maintain the world at its present level, and this entails two components: (1) passively guarding against damage and, (2) actively working in order to replenish it. We need to work the land so that the natural processes repeat themselves; if we don’t do our part, nature will not replenish itself.”

As an interesting side-note, according to Genesis Chapter 2 Verse 7, man comes from the ground. As the Verse states, “Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” The Hebrew word for man, Adam, is related to the Hebrew word for ground, Adama. The two are inseparably linked.

The Bible makes the connection between man and the Earth clear enough when we see time and time again that when humans are corrupt, the earth suffers. This is not some subtle concept that must be derived; it’s explicit in the text. In the Bible’s first story, the account of the Garden of Eden, when God reveals the consequences of taking from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, man is told: “The ground is cursed on your account.” (Gen 3:17) One chapter later, when Cain kills his brother Abel, the consequences again include specifically: “And now you’re cursed from the ground that opened its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand.” (Gen 4:11) Then later comes the flood, the destruction of the land, as a result of mankind continuing to sin against God. Thus, man almost has no choice but to take care of himself and his surroundings, or he will see destruction for himself and the earth. Man does not live in a vacuum; he very much lives on and is connected to the earth.

C.     Having discussed man’s relationship to the earth, I want to address the main topic at hand. I believe we are indeed in an environmental crisis.  According to NASA, for 650,000 years the World’s atmospheric carbon dioxide level had never reached above 300 parts per million. Post-1950, this level has shot up to over 400 parts per million. 9 of the 10 warmest years in their 134-years of record-keeping all have occurred since 2000. 2014 ranks as the warmest year on record. In fact, a whopping 97% of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

D.    Ok, but why should we care?

Here are some of the impacts that are currently visible throughout the U.S. and will continue to affect these regions, according to the Third National Climate Assessment Report 2, released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program:

Heat waves, heavy downpours, a rising sea level, erosion, floods, drought, insect outbreaks, tree diseases, wildfires, decreased water availability, and increasing ocean acidity. This has compromised infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries, and ecosystems.

These are just some of the effects of climate change, and these can be seen all over the world, not just in the United States. They definitely paint a scary picture of the current state of things.

E.     But look, I don’t want to spend more time discussing proofs that the earth is warming and that this can lead to disastrous outcomes, as I believe the second part of the question, about how we can escape this environmental crisis, is much more important and relevant to us.

That being said, I think the question itself needs to be re-written, or at the very least re-framed. Instead of asking: how can we escape from an environmental crisis, the better question we should ask ourselves is: How do we respond to an environmental crisis? How do we take responsibility for decisions related to our environment? What’s the difference, you may ask? Well, to escape something is to flee it, to run away from the problem and not address it. I think the better way to deal with climate change is to acknowledge that it is happening, and that there are decisions we can make to demonstrate we do care about the environment.

Professors Keith Tidball and Marianne Krasny, from Cornell, discuss how greening can enhance recovery from disasters, which in turn results in measurable benefits for individuals, their community, and the environment.

So, what is greening? Greening involves active participation with nature in human or civil society. Specifically, greening refers to the activities of humans to restore local social-ecological systems through activities such as community gardening, community forestry, and improving habitat for wildlife and aquatic biodiversity.

They then go on to define another key term: resilience. Resilience refers to the ability of humans, communities, and larger social systems to re-bound and re-organize in the face of outside stressors, including the death of loved ones and full - blown war or disasters. They contend that greening represents a critical source of resilience at multiple levels.

Given the hardships and urgent safety issues faced by civilians, soldiers, and first-responders after a disaster or during war, it seems counter-intuitive that they would engage in the simple act of gardening, tree-planting, or other greening activities. Yet, intriguing and compelling examples exist of people, stunned by a crisis, benefitting from the therapeutic qualities of nature-contact to ease trauma and to aid in the process of recovery. A large literature explains the benefits of horticulture therapy. Beyond the therapeutic value of plants themselves, others have researched the value of “green places” to ease trauma or discomfort.

Evidence suggests that community gardening has important implications for bolstering resilience after a disaster, especially by enhancing cognitive capacity, positive emotions, and community engagement.

There are more natural disasters today than ever before, increasing over 80% in the past 30 years. So how do we respond to them? The answer, it is clear, is not to escape nature, but to return to it. We must respond to destruction and natural disasters by rebuilding parks, planting trees, and cultivating new gardens.

F.     This year’s sermon contest is in honor and memory of Meyer Bender. Meyer Bender was someone who deeply cared about the environment. Donating rock gardens is a testament to one’s core beliefs. Meyer didn’t donate a hall or a building, things that are made by humans and open to the elements. He built rock gardens. Rocks are a symbol of strength, of fortitude, of something built to last.

G.    Nevertheless, as evidenced by the environmental crisis we are currently facing, these rocks may not be here forever. There is actually an interesting Talmudic story that hints to this truth. One day, while sitting by a creek, Rabbi Akiva noticed a steady trickle of water hitting a rock. It was only a drip, but it was constant – drop after drop after drop. Rabbi Akiva observed something incredible: A hole had been carved out by that steady drip of water into the rock. He wondered how that could be. He then concluded: If something as soft as water can carve a hole in a solid rock, how much more so can words of the Bible – which is hard as iron – make an indelible impression on my heart.

H.    We don’t need to spend trillions of dollars on technology that may or may not work, to fix our environmental crisis. We don’t need to build massive structures to hide ourselves from the outside world. What we need is small changes, that, over time - like the dripping of water on a rock - can make a big impact. Placing a rock here, planting a tree there - it may not seem like much, but over time it makes a huge difference. Remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I think Harold Saperstein would tell us that we have a responsibility to take that step towards improving our environment, because he was a man of principles, and he knew what the right thing to do was. Let’s take that step, together, towards nurturing and protecting the environment we all live in. Thank you.