Genesis, first commentaries
• Caring for Creation •
Genesis 1:1 – In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch makes the first verse in Genesis personal and proactive. He writes that the words teach us “to think of the world as God’s world and ourselves as creatures of God . . . We must not destroy the world, but preserve it – every single creature, every insect, every plant is part of God’s world. Woe to those that disturb His world! Hail to those that preserve His world!”37
Rabbis throughout the ages make clear that God tasks humanity with caring for creation. “When God created Adam, He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him . . . Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world – for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it,”38 teaches the Midrash, a major rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew Bible.
Rabbi Shlomo Eiger, a distinguished intellectual who became a Hasid (spiritual and pious person), was asked what he learned from his first visit with the hasidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Rabbi Eiger answered simply, “In the beginning, God created.” The questioner pressed him: “Did a renowned scholar have to travel to a hasidic rabbi to learn the first verse of the Bible?” Rabbi Eiger responded: “I learned that God created only the beginning; everything else is up to human beings.”39
Rabbi David Rosen explains the ecological impact of the Bible’s opening verse: “If you believe that this world is the creation of a Divine Power, therefore creation itself manifests the Divine Presence, as it says in Psalms, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament declares the work of His hands.’40 If you are a Divinely sensitive person, whether you want to define that as religious or spiritual, then the wellbeing, the health of the environment, and of creation, is a religious imperative.”41
• Sustainability and Spiritual Awareness •
Genesis 1:3 – God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
Since the sun was not created until the fourth day (see Genesis chapter 1, verse 16), the light God created on the first day of creation was not a physical light but a spiritual one. Rabbi Sholom Berezovsky teaches that “without this holy light there is no merit in sustaining creation.”42 Those who seek God perceive this spiritual light. The sustainability of creation therefore depends on the spiritual awareness of humanity.
• Previous and Current Extinction Events •
Genesis 1:5 – God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.
The Midrash asks why this verse reads “And there was evening” rather than just “There was evening” – implying that there was something else before. The Midrash answers, “ . . . time existed before this . . . God created and destroyed worlds until this one . . . when it says, ‘God saw everything He had made and behold it was very good,’43 that teaches us that the previous ones were not.”44
This explanation suggests that cataclysmic extinction events once occurred, and that sustained existence on this planet is not guaranteed. Scientists understand that five extinction events occurred in the last 500 million years, and humans are causing a sixth one at the current time.45 The previous extinction events were caused by “acts of God,” like comets and massive volcanic eruptions. But the current one is caused by people on a creation that God declared “very good.”
• Water and Dry Land •
Genesis 1:9 – God said, “Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.” And it was so.
The Midrash states: “In human experience, a person empties a full vessel into an empty one; does one ever empty a full vessel into a full vessel? Now the world was full of water, yet it says [that God gathered the water], ‘into one area’! From this we learn that the little held a lot.”46
Water separated from the earth by draining into the seas and by forming ice on the land. For most people who do not live near a glacier, the amount of earth’s water held as ice may seem small compared to all the water in lakes and oceans. In fact, roughly 68 percent of the world’s freshwater is locked in ice caps, glaciers, and permanent snow.47
Due to human-caused climate change, however, ice melting of Antarctica has increased from 40 gigatons per year in the 1980s to 252 gigatons per year over the 2010s. All that ice melting into the ocean has raised global sea levels.48 In some coastal areas, sea level rise is beginning to regularly flood whole towns and low-lying parts of major cities. God said that dry land should appear from the water, yet by humanity’s actions, more and more water is covering land.
• Edible Trees •
Genesis 1:11–12 – And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: seed-bearing plants of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that this was good.
As Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher) points out, God commanded the earth to produce “fruit trees that bear fruit,” meaning trees whose bark could be eaten as well as their fruit. However, he notes that the earth produced trees (whose bark is not eaten) that produce fruit in order that the trees themselves would not be devoured.49
Long ago, and today, we have come to understand that trees – in addition to the fruit they produce – have broader value including providing homes for animals large and small, and retaining soil to prevent erosion and catastrophic mudslides.
• God Blesses Fish and Birds •
Genesis 1:22 – God blessed them [ fish and birds], saying, “Be fertile and increase, fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.”
Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) explains that God’s blessing to fish to “be fertile” is to have the potential to create new generations, while the blessing to “increase” is to thrive in numbers.50
Worldwide, humans are now depleting the planet’s fish stocks through overfishing and plastic use. A UN report indicates that one-third of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels in 2015.51 Extensive plastic pollution kills fish, marine mammals, seabirds, and other wildlife, and reduces their ability to give birth, rear their young, and sustain their species.52 In regard to birds, a 2019 Cornell University study “finds steep, long-term losses across virtually all groups of birds in the US and Canada. It reveals across-the-board declines that scientists call ‘staggering.’ All told, the North American bird population is down by 2.9 billion breeding adults.”53
God desires abundant sea life to fill the ocean and healthy bird populations. Should we not, therefore, be strong advocates for sustainable fishing, ending ocean pollution, and protecting both land birds and sea birds?
• On Eating Animals •
Genesis 1:26 – And God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”
This verse states God intends for people to rule over fish, birds, and animals. Yet in Genesis 1:29, God states that human beings are only permitted a plant-based diet. Rabbi Isaac Karo explains that “ruling” over creatures mentioned in the verse clearly does not involve killing them for human food.54
Rabbi Gil Marks notes: . . . historically, meat, when consumed, was usually a flavoring agent and, as a rule, a component in a dish reserved for special occasions. Only in the past century has animal flesh assumed such a prominent role in the diet, with meat frequently being served once, sometimes twice, or even three times, a day. On the contrary, throughout most of history, cattle and sheep were not regarded as sources of food, but rather sheep were prized for their milk and wool, and cows were valued for plowing, turning the wheels that drew water from rivers and canals, hauling heavy materials, trodding grain for winnowing, powering the millstones for grinding grain, and turning the stone wheel for pressing olives. Flocks and herds served as the principal source of clothing, wealth, and security for our ancestors, something that would have been squandered if eaten. Meat was the exception, not the rule.55
• Will Humans Rule, or Animals?56
Genesis 1:28 – God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”
On the surface, the words of this verse appear to give people license to degrade and subdue the earth, but the rabbis over the millennia for the most part do not read them this way. The rabbinic commentaries reveal much about these verses beyond the simple reading and make clear that a wholly different message is being conveyed.
Verse 26 states, God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. They shall rule [ve-yir-du] the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”57 Verse 28 uses a command verb form, with God saying, “Rule [u-re-du] the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.’”58
The Midrash commentary here is based on a play on words in Hebrew, in which the root of the word “to rule” is the same root as the word “to be taken down.” Rabbi Chanina interpreted the Midrash to say: “If humankind is worthy, God says ‘u-re-du’ [you rule!]; while if humankind is not worthy, God says, ‘yé-ra-du’ – he will be taken down (or let others [the animals] rule over him).”59
Based on the Midrash, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) agrees that if we are not worthy, we will be ruled by animals.60 In this vein, H. Freedman and Maurice Simon comment, “Man is entitled to pre-eminence only as long as he cultivates his God-like qualities; when he voluntarily abandons them he is even lower than the brute creation.”61
Can humans be ruled by animals today? At first, we may think human beings are so powerful, we are immune to these predictions. Yet, for example, insect infestations around the world have caused tremendous havoc in human life, from grasshoppers in Africa to bed bugs in North America. Insect-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, and Zika virus have spread to more northern latitudes, as human-induced climate change expands the range of certain mosquito species.62 The most recent case of tiny organisms antagonizing people is the coronavirus pandemic. Some research indicates that the virus likely spread from bats to pangolins (a spiny anteater) to people.63
One key message from the Midrash is that God’s blessing to rule over other creatures depends on our living as righteous people. If humanity becomes worthy by living in a righteous way, then humans shall rule over nature. But if humans do not merit dominion, because they do not act in an upright fashion, then humanity will descend and not be granted rulership over nature. The rabbis learn this from the juxtaposition of God saying that humans will be created in God’s image immediately before saying that humans will rule over other creatures.64
Rabbi David Sears writes that ruling “comprises a form of stewardship for which humanity is answerable to God. Both Talmudic and kabbalistic sources state that it is forbidden to kill any creature unnecessarily, or to engage in wanton destruction of the earth’s resources. All forms of life are precious by virtue of the Divine wisdom that brings them into existence, whatever rung they may occupy in the hierarchy of creation . . . The Divine mandate for man to dominate the natural world is a sacred trust, not a carte blanche for destructiveness.”65
37. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, commentary to Genesis 1:1.
38. Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13.
39. As cited in Rabbi Norman Lamm, Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis ( Jerusalem: OU Press and Maggid Books, 2012), and Rabbi Norman Lamm, Faith and Doubt (Brooklyn: KTAV Publishing House, 1986), 175.
40. Psalms 19:1.
41. Rabbi David Rosen, “Jewish Ethics, Animal Welfare, and Veganism: A Panel of Rabbis and Experts,” interview, Jewish Eco Seminars Productions, January 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHIyXrN1JAI.
42. Rabbi Shalom Berezovsky, Netivot Shalom (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Beit Avraham Slonim, 2000), Numbers 41.
43. Genesis 1:31.
44. Midrash Genesis Rabbah 3:7.
45. Michael Greshko, “What Are Mass Extinctions, and What Causes Them?” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/prehistoric-world/mass-extinction/.
46. Midrash Genesis Rabbah 5:7.
47. “Ice, Snow, and Glaciers and the Water Cycle,” Water Science School, US Geological Survey, accessed February 18, 2020, www.usgs.gov/special-topic /water-science-school/science/ice-snow-and-glaciers-and-water-cycle?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
48. Eric Rignot et al., “Four Decades of Antarctic Ice Sheet Mass Balance from 1979–2017,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 4, January 2019, 1095–1103, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1812883116.
49. Tur Ha’Arokh on Genesis 1:11.
50. Radak on Genesis 1:22. See also Midrash Genesis Rabbah 97:3 and Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 20a which relate to Genesis 48:16 on the use of the Hebrew root containing fish, dag, as meaning “to reproduce and proliferate.”
51. “UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’”, United Nations, May 6, 2019, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/ citing IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
52. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and Amanda L. J. Duffus, “Effects of Environmental
Change on Wildlife Health,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences 364, no. 1534, November 2009, 3429–3438, https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2009.0128.
53. Kenneth Rosenberg et al., “Decline of the North American Avifauna,” Science, 2019, https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Decline-Of-North-American-Avifauna-Science-2019.pdf.
54. Rabbi Isaac Karo, Toldot Yitzchak commentary to Genesis 1:28.
55. Rabbi Gil Marks, Olive Trees and Honey (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing Co., 2005), viii.
56. This is adapted from “Genesis and Human Stewardship of the Earth,” Yonatan Neril, February 24, 2014, content produced by Canfei Nesharim, a branch of Grow Torah. It is available at http://canfeinesharim.org/genesis-and -humanstewardship-of-the-earth/.
57. Genesis 1:26. 58. Ibid., 1:28.
59. Midrash Genesis Rabbah (Vilna Edition), 8:12. Artscroll Rashi to Genesis 1:26 notes, “The Maharal explains in Gur Aryeh to Genesis 1:26 that ‘the verse uses v’yirdu for “ruling,” from the root resh-dalet-heh, rather than the more common mashal, so that it can be expounded as if it were from the root yud-resh-dalet, “declining, degenerating,” as well.’”
60. Rashi on Genesis 1:26.
61. Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, Rabbi Dr. Harry Freedman and Maurice Simon trans. (London: Soncino Press, 1983).
62. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment, A Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra K. Pachauri and Leo Meyer eds, IPPC, 2014, https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/05/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full_wcover.pdf.
63. “Missing Link in Coronavirus Jump from Bats to Humans Could Be Pangolins, Not Snakes,” American Chemical Society, March 26, 2020, https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2020/march/missing-link-in
64. Rabbi Zev Wolf Einhorn in his commentary (Perush Maharzav) to the Midrash explains that this midrash is explaining the different grammatical uses of the verb “to rule” in verses 26 and 28. In verse 26, before the human being has been created, God says about them, “v’yirdu,” in the future tense, meaning “and they shall rule over.” Verse 27 reads “And God created Man . . . ” Verse 28 contains God’s blessing to people, in the imperative form “urdu,” meaning “rule over.” The Midrash, however, reads the latter verse differently. The lettering can also be read “v’yeiradu,” in the passive form meaning “they [people] will be ruled over [by animals].”
65. Rabbi David Sears, “Selections From ‘A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace’,” in The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, Rabbi David Cohen ed., David Sears trans. https://www.jewishveg.org/DSvision.html.
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