Rabbi David Walk
As the immortal Groucho Marx used to begin his TV show, You Bet Your Life, 'Well, here we are again!' By that I mean at the beginning of the Torah. In so many ways Breishit is the most difficult Torah reading of the year. Rabbis find it relatively easy to deal with issues like laws and customs but concepts like Creation and the nature of the universe are, perhaps, best left to cosmologists. So, concerning the source of the Big Bang (not the TV show), I'll just say that Breishit informs us that there is a God who started it all. That's not a bad piece of information because 95 % of Americans believe in a Deity, and even though among scientists the consensus is smaller it's still the majority (51% according to Pew Survey of 2009). Enough about God. I agree with Alexander Pope, 'Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man.' Therefore let's take a look at what we can learn about humanity from our parsha.
There are two critical verses, I believe, to begin a study of the status of humankind. The first is the more famous: And God created human in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Breishit 1:27). This means that we share something in common with God. We could give many answers as to what that 'something' is. However, I will limit myself to the answer of Reb Chaim Volozhin (1749-1821): Just like God is the power who controls many worlds, so God has made humanity to be the opener and closer of many thousands of powers throughout this world and control them at all times and places according to the connection of one's actions, words and thoughts as if the human really was the master of those powers (Nefesh HaChaim 1:3). In other words we are to the rest of this world as God is to us. Pretty heady stuff! We are in some way God's minor partners.
However, I'm more interested in the other verse: Now the Lord God took the man, and He placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it (Breishit 2:15). Here we're told that the first human was given a very specific directive to take care of his world. There is a dichotomy of opinions about how to view this instruction, and both are clearly delineated by Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167): The reasoning of this verse is to garden the crops and to protect them from wild animals, while others understand this to mean to serve God by fulfilling the positive commandments and to guard ourselves from performing the acts which are prohibited. It's almost like the Ibn Ezra allows us to choose between a physical or spiritual interpretation of this verse and therefore of our role on earth. Clearly the context seems to dictate the more prosaic approach, but the Hebrew words l'ovdo (to serve) and l'shomro (to guard or refrain) are often used in a spiritual context. As a Modern Orthodox Jew, I believe strongly that both are true and I'm indebted to the Ibn Ezra for presenting both, but this year I'm opting for door number one, the gardening option.
We have been placed in this world and we have a dual obligation towards it. The first is to work it or improve it. This immediately presents us with a problem, because in the first chapter of
Breishit we have been informed that this world is 'very good.' Can we improve on God's great creation? This leaves us two options: either the 'goodness' of this world is that we were left with tasks to perform or that we are expected to add our own mark on God's wonderful world. Either way we are tasked to work hard on making this world a wonderful place. This concept can, perhaps, best be understood through two Jewish legal concepts. We must perform circumcisions on our male children to leave our mark on Creation. Also, the most exalted and specific of our food blessings is on bread, which requires a tremendous human input to produce. So, we are literally and figuratively making our mark on Creation.
We must also shomer or guard this realm. We can also understand this in two ways. In our attempts to improve this world we must make sure that we are not destructive. In the centuries since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution we have learned a lot about how to control our devastation of the land. In my lifetime I've seen the great strides made to limit air pollution. We have a long way to go, but we are beginning to understand our duty to preserve the natural wonders of our world for future generations. But there's another way of looking at our duty to guard this world. Sometimes we employ the concept of an honor guard. The soldiers pacing back and forth at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery aren't saving those remains from any enemy. They are showing our great respect for those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. So, too, we must show respect and honor for this great gift bestowed upon by our maker.
The Rav (Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik ZT"L) adds another layer of meaning to this universal obligation of mankind. He notes that we are told by God: With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return (3:19). We are part of nature. We form an ontic unity. The Torah is going to give the Jewish nation many more obligations, but none are more basic or important that the injunction to live in harmony with nature. The Rav explains that the definition of sin is the betrayal of nature. Let us be faithful guardians and gardeners of God's great gift.