Humans as Guests in God's World

A talmudic metaphor teaches that human beings are responsible for ensuring that the world achieves global environmental sustainability.

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Reprinted with permission from the column “The People & the Book” in The Jerusalem Report, October 7, 2002. This piece is a commentary on the weekly Torah portion of Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8).

What are the opening chapters of Genesis about? Many people today read them as science -- a factual description of the creation of the world. For others, they are ancient Middle Eastern mythology, or a piece of intellectual history -- a canonical text that has helped shape the West. For still others they are still theology -- God’s word telling us primarily about God: divine mastery and mystery.

The late scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel wrote that more than human theology, what people think about God, the Bible is “God’s anthropology” -- a God’s eye view of people. Applying that perspective to Genesis illuminates some of the key issues confronting humanity today. For though it was composed long before the wonders and horrors of modern technology, and before challenges such as global warming, Genesis provides striking insights regarding the question of global sustainability -- how to live responsibly in this world so we and coming generations can prosper -- that is the subject of international debate on the environment today.

Environmentalists shudder when reading Chapter 1 of Genesis, which contains that nasty command (verse 28): “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the heavens, and all the beasts that crawl on the earth.” Actually, 3,000 years ago this must have been an uplifting blessing, promising hope and dignity for a society with a short average life-span and great susceptibility to natural threats. Only recently have we fulfilled this “blessing” beyond any pre-modern’s dreams.

Genesis Chapter 2: Guarding the Earth

Chapter 2, a strikingly different portrayal of creation, provides the crucial counterpoint: giving human beings the task of “le’ovdah ulshomrah” regarding the garden, and by implication the earth. The Hebrew phrase has been translated as “to work and to guard,” “to till and to tend,” “to work and to watch,” “to serve and preserve.” All point to the contemporary concept of sustainable development. Working the land is crucial for human flourishing -- but guarding the earth is the critical complement. We need to guard the world precisely from our avodah, the effects of our own work. In our struggle for the earth’s fruits, we sow the seeds of our own, and the world’s, destruction -- unless we temper our toil with responsibility and concern for posterity. Unfortunately, as a contemporary policy, “sustainable development” all too often really means runaway development, with the demands of sustainability shunted aside.

Perhaps that’s because in the rush for practical policy, we forget the underlying question of humanity’s place in the world. The Talmudic rabbis address this issue in their commentary on the “anti-environmental” chapter 1, by asking the simple question: Why was the first human created last, on the very eve of the Shabbat? For us, the seemingly obvious answer is that Genesis presents humanity as the pinnacle and purpose of creation. But in the Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin, the rabbis pluralistically present four midrashic answers -- all undercutting our easy reading.

Adam was created last, says one rabbi, so “heretics can’t claim that God had a partner in Creation.” The monotheistic emphasis implies constraint on behavior: though we are created in God’s image, and charged with imitating God, we are not God, and must not appropriate for ourselves God-like powers of creation. People who oppose wide-scale genetic engineering share this gut concern.

Why, though, specifically on the eve of Shabbat? So that “the first human would immediately perform a commandment” -- observing Shabbat. A central message of the laws of the Sabbath is a limitation on our freedom to create. We also learn here that the human was not the last thing created. Shabbat was, and so transcends humanity. The message of humility is more caustic in the third answer: “If the human should get too haughty, he should be reminded that the gnat preceded him in Creation.”

Guests at God’s Banquet

But the Talmud’s last answer finally plays up human centrality: “So the human will enter immediately into the banquet. Like a mortal king who builds the palace, sets the table, and only then invites in the guest of honor….”  God is the king, and we are the guests of honor at the feast. Is this, then, the prooftext ….? Consume, guzzle and be merry?

Exactly the opposite. Indeed, most of environmental ethics and sustainable development policy could be based precisely on the viewpoint of the guest. Just think of what you would and wouldn’t do as a guest in someone else’s home. How much would you eat from their table -- even if you felt it were a banquet laid for you? Would you chop up the furniture for kindling? Kill the pets? Deny other guests their share of the host’s bounty? Whether we base this sensibility on belief in God or not -- we are indeed guests, here for a twinkling in the cosmic long haul. We continue acting as the haughty master of the house at our peril.

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Jeremy Benstein

Jeremy Benstein is the fellowship director of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv.