This article was published in the October 11, 2012 edition of the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle.
This week's parshah tells of God's creation of the world and of the first few generations of human beings. Although this section has often been used to suggest permission for a cavalier attitude toward the natural world, a careful reading shows the deep responsibility human beings have to care for God's Creation.
The issue is best seen in two different verses describing the creation of human beings. In chapter 1, verse 27 we read: “And God created man in God's image, after God's likeness; male and female God created them. God blessed them and 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 the earth.'”
The word for “master” in this passage is kibush, which means “dominate” or “occupy.” This passage seems to say that the sole purpose for the world and all that is in it is for human beings to use as they see fit.
But the issue is not left there, and the passage is balanced by a second one, found in chapter 2, verse 15: “God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.” The words for “till” is oved (literally, work) and the word for “tend” is shomer (literally, guard). The clear connotation\ of this passage is protection or stewardship.
I don't want to dismiss the first passage for the second, and in fact there's no question that humans have the ability, and even divine permission, to use the resources available to us on Earth for the benefit of human life. But - and it's a big but – we are not permitted to use God's creation in profligate or careless ways. We do not own the Earth – God does; we are God's caretakers, tasked with making sure that the world continues to be able to support our lives and the lives of the other creatures with which we share it.
That's why, over time, Judaism has developed values that support the responsible stewardship of Creation. One such value is baal tashhit (do not waste). Each and every one of us breaks this directive every day. We waste food – Americans waste more than 40 percent of the food we produce for consumption. We waste energy - more than half (58%) of the total energy produced in the US is wasted due to inefficiencies. We waste water – watering our lawns can use almost as much water in an hour as an average family of four uses in one day. The way we transport ourselves, and heat and light our homes, contributes to global climate change, which is causing non-human species to die-off and makes it much harder for many people, especially those in the least privileged areas of the world, to get the resources they need to survive and thrive. In these ways and many others we are failing to fulfill God's instruction to “till and tend” creation.
The Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) says, “Look at My works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And everything I made, I created for you. Be careful [though] that you don’t spoil or destroy my world — because if you spoil it, there is nobody after you to fix it.”
The reading this week of Parshat Breishit is a chance to remind ourselves of, and rededicate ourselves to, our responsibility to care for God's Creation.