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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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.