Beresheet: Pray, Act, Do

Beresheet begins our Torah-reading cycle anew. Once again, we turn the scroll over and read our people’s origin story; a mythological history that speaks to the wonder our ancestors saw when they looked at the ever-changing world around them. This parshah tells the story of how God created the world, and everything in it, through the power of God’s speech. The Torah then tells the early stories of humanity; of Adam and Eve, Cain and his brother Abel, and introduces us to Noah, whose actions will help renew Creation in next week’s reading.

Creation is a magical process. Watching new life emerge into the world is a powerful experience of something Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “radical amazement[1].” This spring, on our small homestead, my family and I had the chance to watch Creation unfold as one of our hens hatched five new baby chicks. As we held these new lives in our hands on that first day, my children saw the beauty of Creation firsthand. And, in the months that have passed since that day they have come to a deeper understanding of their responsibility to these new creatures.

In Genesis 1:28, we are told that God says to the first humans that they should “master” the earth. As the text continues to unfold, we are given further instructions in Genesis 2:15, as we learn that God placed humans in the garden to “work the land and keep watch over it.” And, although Genesis 1:26 instructs humans to “hold dominion” over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air, Rashi is quick to note in his commentary on the verse that the word “vayirdu – dominion” contains both the meaning of ruling and the meaning of subservience. We are not supposed to conquer the earth, but rather learn how to live in deep relationship with it. When this relationship loses its balance, we falter. These critical early values of our tradition prompt us to know that our relationship with the earth and the other sentient beings on it is not just an environmental issue; it is a social justice issue.

Over the generations, as humans have drifted from our deeply rooted relationship with our food, our environment, and our earth, we have lost some of that sense of amazement. That has impeded our ability to care for the earth. When we do not care for the earth, the earth is less capable of caring for us. Climate justice and environmental justice are about re-creating this balance of working the land and keeping watch over it. We recognize our impact on the world around us, and it calls us to act for environmental stewardship, just transitions to a greener energy system, and actions to support vulnerable populations impacted by climate change[2]. We do this sacred work in many ways.

We pray:

Our tradition believes in the power of prayer to transform us. We create new prayer moments, rituals, and retell old stories in unique ways that seek to help us restore our balance with the earth. Let’s host a shabbat dinner and discussion about food justice. Or, let’s enhance our sukkot celebrations with new rituals that remind us of the fragility of the world and the dangers of climate change. Let’s explore ancient practices like the shmita year with new eyes, and read about Jewish earth-based spiritual practices to explore at home.

We act:

To be a progressive Jew means to be actively engaged in Judaism’s call for justice. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former President of the Union of Reform Judaism, said that we should “never forget that God is concerned about the everyday and that the blights of society take precedence over the mysteries of heaven[3].” Let’s heed that ancient call in new ways through writing letters to our elected officials, joining advocacy days with local Jewish and interfaith groups, or by educating ourselves on issues like protecting the environment, supporting endangered species, and fossil fuel alternatives.

We do:

As part of re-rooting our Jewish practice in the earth, we need to make real changes to our daily lives. For our family, our Jewish journey involves raising animals, exploring eco-kashrut, and working hard to grow lots of our own food. For others the “doing” may be different but the calling is the same. We are each motivated by our desire to live in partnership with the earth and to witness the unfolding of Creation.

Beresheet is the story of us. It is a mythic retelling of how our ancestors experienced the beauty and wonder of Creation. As we circle back to that beginning, we have the opportunity to examine our own experiences and practices. Are we living in full relationship with the earth, or have we allowed our sense of radical amazement to deteriorate? Can we re-root ourselves to practices that enhance our connection to the earth, and heed the call for justice in ways that move us? I know that we still have work to do to truly renew our ancient, two-fold obligation to “work the land and keep watch over it.” But, when I saw the look on my children’s faces as they held those baby chicks this spring, I knew that another cycle was beginning. And, with that cycle comes another opportunity to pray, act, and do.


About the author:

Rabbi James Greene is the Assistant Executive Director of the Springfield Jewish Community Center in Western Massachusetts. He is a 2008 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.


[1] God In Search Of Man

[2] Adapted from

[3] Rabbi Eric Yoffie, speech to the UAHC Executive Committee, February 1998