Torah from Around the World #153

By Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde,

Ohev Tzedek-Shaarei Torah

, Ohio, USA

The Jewish-American poet Marge Piercy has written an achingly beautiful poem called “Nishmat,” which appears in the Reconstructionist

Kol Haneshamah

siddur as an interpretation of the traditional Nishmat Kol Chai prayer of Shabbat morning. Here is an excerpt:

“…Every day we find a new sky and a new earth

with which we are trusted like a perfect toy.

We are given the salty river of our blood

winding through us, to remember the sea and our

kindred under the waves, the hot pulsing that knocks

in our throats to consider our cousins in the grass

and the trees, all bright scattered rivulets of life…”


Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim

, The Reconstructionist Press, p. 232)

I am moved by the way this poem evokes our obligation and relationship to the natural world as something given over to us in trust. Surprisingly, this poetic evocation of stewardship has strong resonances with the seemingly obscure legal categories in this week’s parsha.

Our parsha,


, deals with a vast array of mitzvot, from slavery and manslaughter to taking care of our enemy’s livestock even when we don’t want to. The mitzvot that are relevant to our inquiry are Exodus 22:6-14. The legal categories of guardianship are outlined here and then developed further in the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 3 and 7:8). A basic element of these legal categories has great relevance in envisioning a Jewish environmental ethic.

Exodus 22:6 begins, “When a man gives money or goods to another for safekeeping, and they are stolen from the man’s house…” Mishnah Bava Metzia 3:1 begins quite similarly, “If one left (


) a beast or utensils in the charge of his fellow and they were stolen or lost…” The Mishnah in Bava Metzia expands at length on the idea of the


, the one who entrusts his property to another.

This word


is a rich and resonant word that is central for our discussion, but let us step back for a moment to a broader issue in environmental ethics. Sometimes, the Torah is blamed for much of our environmental crisis, in that many have understood Genesis 1:28 (“fill the earth and master it”) as giving human beings license to rule over creation as we wished and to use the natural world solely for our benefit.

Critics argue that Genesis provided the foundation for the Western worldview of dominion over nature. A discussion of this seminal and controversial verse from Genesis is beyond our discussion here, but suffice it to say, for our purposes, that there are other ways of understanding it. Indeed, a few verses later, Genesis 2:15 describes a very different human/Earth relationship, with man being placed in the Garden of Eden, “

l’ovdah u’lshomrah

/to serve it and preserve it.”

A verse from Psalms, one we regularly sing in Hallel prayers, is also regularly cited regarding the dominion issue as well: “The heavens belong to YHVH, but the earth God gave over to humanity.” (Psalms 115:16) This verse, along with Genesis 1:28, seem to play into the view of the human-natural world relationship as one of dominion. But this is not the way to understand this verse from Psalms, says the great 12th century Spanish commentator Abraham ibn Ezra:

“The ignorant have compared humanity’s rule over the earth with God’s rule over the heavens. This is not right, for God rules over everything. The meaning of ‘but the earth God gave over to humanity’ is that humanity is God’s officer (or steward, pakeed) over the earth and must do everything according to God’s word.” (Cited and translated by Jeremy Benstein,

The Way into Judaism and the Environment

, Jewish Lights, 2006, p. 90).

Now we return to this central word,


. Ibn Ezra’s teaching, understanding humanity as the officer (


) of the Divine, strikes me as a wonderful orienting metaphor. What I love about it is that it is rooted in a specific, seemingly dry traditional Jewish legal category, but with a closer look we find the legal category of


richly suggestive. The entire creation has been lent to us, as in Marge Piercy’s poem, quoted above. We are God’s agents, and creation is in our hands to cherish and lovingly guard, or to misuse.

A rich anthropomorphic image comes to mind of the Holy One, with trepidation, gently handing over the earth to humanity, saying “I trust you. Please take care of this for me for a while.”  As Jewish thinker and activist Jeremy Benstein points out, “…the notion of stewardship embodies a sense of responsibility in two directions: ‘downward’ for the Earth, the deposit, that thing that is held in trust for the sake of the owner, and “upward” to God,

koneh shamayim va’aretz

, the Creator and possessor of the universe, the Place of all.” (Benstein,

The Way into Judaism and the Environment

, p. 90.).

The challenges of our ongoing environmental crisis are vast and continually daunting, and I believe that we should mine Jewish tradition as thoroughly as possible to discover orienting metaphors that might offer us a Jewish framing to meet these challenges. At the same time, we will probably need to evolve further metaphors, as those from the earlier epochs of the Bible and the rabbis may not be sufficient in their power and scope to speak to our current reality and challenges.

For example, as powerful as I find the


metaphor of stewardship and trust, I am troubled by its dualistic nature. It too easily gives a sense of God being completely separate from nature, as God hands over control of the earth to humanity. Personally, I don’t believe that God is separate from the natural world. I believe that the natural world is an expression of Divinity, as in the classic Hasidic interpretation of the verse (Isaiah 6:3) “

m’lo kol ha’aretz k’vodo

/the entire Earth is filled with God’s radiance.” Another contemporary way to give language to this is that instead of thinking about “Creator” and “creation,” with the inherent separation those concepts imply, we think in terms of “deep structure” and “surface.”

Ultimately, we will need as many evocative metaphors as possible as we draw on Jewish wisdom to inform our vision of the relationship of humans to the Earth.

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