Genesis and Human Stewardship of the Earth

As humans and Jews we have a responsibility to take care of the earth.

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In the Torah, the order of domination is fish-birds-animals: “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz) explains that man has a greater ability to rule over land animals than birds (out of reach in the sky), and fish (out of reach and out of sight, in the sea). If humans do not merit, then not only will they not dominate the fish, which are harder to catch, but also the birds and animals, which are easier.

Yet a glaring contrast emerges between the Kli Yakar’s 17th century description of the limited human capacity for domination of the animals, birds and fish of the natural world and what we know about the ability of contemporary society to dominate the land, air, and sea of planet earth.  

Stewardship in the Modern Age

For example, while the Kli Yakar emphasizes that fish are not visible to people, sonar, satellite data and the Global Positioning System (GPS) enable fishermen to effectively ‘see’ giant schools of fish with pinpoint accuracy. According to a study led by researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, these changes have contributed to a dramatic fall in fish populations in all of the world's oceans.

When human mastery grows such that we seriously deplete the numbers of a particular fish, our continued access to this fish quickly diminishes. Our lack of righteousness leads us to lose our domination of this resource in the long-term. Rabbi Daniel Kohn links the blessing to subdue (kivshuha) in our verse with the Mishna’s use of ‘subdue’ in the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot), in which Ben Zoma teaches, “Who is strong? The person who subdues their inclinations.” Spiritual discipline comprises true strength. A person must decide in their own life which desires to subdue and which desires to bring to realization.

Jewish tradition teaches us that we only merit the opportunity to rule the earth if we behave righteously. This includes the spiritual discipline to use our resources wisely, and subdue with a sense of moral responsibility. In our times, we have demonstrated our ability to subdue the earth. A central question facing humanity concerns whether we will exhibit the strength to rein in our desires. If we do not, we may be taken down by our lack of righteousness. May we summon the strength to conquer our short-term desires, live with righteousness, and merit an enlightened dominion of the planet G-d created.

Jewcology.com is a new web portal for the global Jewish environmental community. Thanks to the ROI community for their generous support, which made the Jewcology project possible.

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Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs Jewish Eco Seminars, which engages and educates the Jewish community with Jewish environmental wisdom. He has worked with Canfei Nesharim for the past six years in developing educational resources relating to Judaism and the environment.