This is a fragile while beautiful place: We dare not spoil it.
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
January 11th, 2013
Tomorrow's haftarah, special for when Rosh Hodesh and Shabbat coincide begins with the words from the prophet Isaiah: "Thus said the Lord: the heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool." Allowing for many theological issues, the singular point I elicit for this sermon is that God has a special relationship with this planet. Our theology imputes that all existence stems from God's creative power, but this place is special. Throughout the Bible there are many verses that sustain this belief. The very opening of the Torah, with the narrative of the Creation, excludes every other star and galaxy to focus just on Earth, the pinnacle of Creation. The sacred charge to the first human being was to "l'av-dah v'sham-rah," "tend it and guard it." While there is little argument over the second word, there are many meanings embedded in the first. It can be translated "work it." But it should not be translated "exploit it." The prophet says: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." This place, this spinning orb in the universe, is owned by the Divine. It is only lent to mankind. This is the focus of the second great narrative, namely, the Flood of Noah. Its main thrust is that mankind capitulated its right to live on the earth because of the evil they were performing. Humanity does not have an inherent right to live here. It is not an entitlement. It is a gift, a privilege, which can be yielded or removed.
I was struck by a science article this week that indicated that there are an immense number of planets approximately the size of planet earth out there in space. When we look up at the night sky and see all the points of light, around them are revolving many planets, and many of them are just our size. And yet, to date, with all our ability to explore them, and for the billions of years since God said "Let there be…" no place in all existence has life like ours, the beauty of the flowers and the bees, the brilliance of human beings and majesty of the animal kingdom. There is no place like this. Anywhere. There is no species like human beings. Anywhere. We are beyond rare. We are beyond precious. There are no words in language to express this.
This planet is not limitless. When we stand by the sea shore and look out to the ocean, it might seem endless, we know better. When we stand in the forest we can't imagine counting the trees, or on our knees we can't imagine counting the blades of grass. But their numbers are finite. It does not go on forever. We can chop them down and the earth will be barren. We can spread chemicals on the lawn and kill all the grass as well as the weeds, and make it impossible to reseed. The earth can be ruined. It can be ruined forever. Forever is a very long word.
It is something I fear. I fear a law of "consequences-unknown-for-some-time-that-ultimately- destroys-us." How frequently does it happen that a product is released to the market place and is readily consumed or used and yet its detrimental impact upon only comes to light much later, with little ability to rectify its destructive power on humans or the environment. The devastating effects of the chemicals poured on Viet Nam and the chemicals consumed by pregnant women can never be reversed. Judaism teaches us to respect science because it reveals to us the majesty and magnitude of God's creation. We stand in awe of the Divine the more we study science. Science proves God! For this place, we humans cannot be duplicated! The earth cannot be cloned! Robots can't be humans. And yet we are so fragile. And not everything broken can be repaired. When, as a child, I played ball in Brooklyn, my mother warned me about running into the street after it. She called out: "I can always buy another ball. I can't buy another boy." We can't buy another planet. We can't buy back damaged human beings. The consequences of our actions are forever.
In the Book of Deuteronomy (20:19-20) it refers to making war on a city. "…thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for thou mayest eat of them, but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field 'man' that it should be besieged of thee? Only the trees of which thou knowest that they are not trees for food, them thou mayest destroy and cut down…" This narrow focus on fruit trees must be expanded to embrace a wider vision of preserving and enhancing the entire earth. Why do we attack it? Why do we ruin it? Is it making war on us? If we cannot breathe its air, we cannot live. If we cannot eat its food, we cannot live. If we cannot drink its water, we cannot live. The Torah is God's word to us, no matter the details of its journey from God to us. God is commanding us to respect the earth for it sustains us. It nourishes us. It gives us life.
The Rabbis understood the delicate balance of our world. I don't know how they came to this conclusion, for their scientific knowledge was certainly limited. Yet, they knew what science has now proved. It is contained in a brief midrash.
Midrash Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) Raba (Vilna edition) 7:28:
"When G-d created the first man He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him 'See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world – for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.'"
My children thought that as their father I could fix everything they broke. I appreciated their faith in me, yet I cautioned them, saying: "I can't fix everything." There are things in this world, in our lives, that once broken, can't be fixed, no matter how much money we have. I enlarge my mother's cry out to me. Not only can I not buy another boy, I cannot buy another ball, kaddur ha'aretz, the ball of the earth.
It is for that reason that I attended this past Monday the session of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, convened to vote on the report of the Uranium Working Group. What will ultimately be decided is a matter of life and death. Certainly it will create jobs. Certainly jobs will improve the economy, at least in the short term. Certainly those out of work are literally dying for jobs. Yet the thrust of the report, in the writing of regulations for "what if…", in its essence recognizes the inherent dangers in the mining of uranium. It assumes that rules will be followed. It assumes that money can be spent to fix its ills. Yet it ignores the frailty of man and of the earth. No place does it say: "What if we can't fix it? What then?" That is the ultimate reality that must be confronted. It will be too late to wake up and bemoan "What have we done?" It will be too late to wake up and pray to God to fix the evil we have perpetrated. God will not have brought the flood. We will have brought it upon ourselves.
I was dismayed that they voted so overwhelmingly to forward to the report to legislature. It is a terrible error. I most vociferously oppose it.
One person closed her remarks by citing the words of President Roosevelt: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." There are times when we are blinded by unwarranted fear. We can't always know the result of our decisions. We often face forks in the road. We have to take one and we if don't like it, if it doesn't work out, we can't back and try the other. Life is not a child's game. It isn't a toy. Yet there are times when fear is warranted. There is enough knowledge to inform us, warn us, caution us, not to pursue a path. At least not yet. At least not now.
Perhaps God works through human agency. Certainly the prophets saw the foreign empires as God's agents against Israel when they sinned. So, following their pattern, I see scientists as God's agents, using the knowledge they have discovered about God's creation, as His voice warning us how terribly we have impacted this planet in less than two hundred years. We have blown it up, carved it up, heated it up, dirtied it up, dangerously, tragically.
Now is the time to reverse this course. The planet is too hot. The air is too dirty. The ground is too polluted. And there is no Ark to board.
Now is the time to refrain from actions that have no recourse for correction, like mining uranium.
Now is the time to alternate fuels that will allow us our lifestyle yet respect and replenish the planet.
Now is the time to conserve the resources of the earth that are limited, so that humanity can live forever.
For all those make policy, let them remember the wisdom of Rabbis: "Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world – for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.'"