During one of our recent ‘Date-Nights’, my wife and I decided to watch David Attenborough’s 2020 nature documentary “A Life on our Planet”. It is available on Netflix, and I highly recommend it – for people of all ages and stages of life. It is, I think, his greatest and most important piece of work.
Attenborough, who is now 94 years old, called this documentary his “Witness Statement” to the world, and in it he explains the dire status of the planet and points to solutions. He describes the changes to the environment and the biodiversity crisis that he has personally witnessed over his 94 years of life. In his final message to the world, he clearly illustrates the devastating impact humanity has had on our planet, due, in large part, to our misguided belief that we live in a world that has unlimited resources. In Attenborough’s words, “Our home was not limitless. We are ultimately bound by and defined by the resources on this planet.”
There are only so many trees we can cut down, so many rain-forests we can destroy, so many fish we can catch, so many rivers we can pollute, so much plastic that we can dump in the ocean, so many glaciers that can melt, so many wildlife habitats we can eradicate – before the results of our collective actions start coming back to haunt us through flood, drought, famine, refugee crises, pandemic, wild fires, rising sea levels, extinction of species and soil erosion.
Just like with a human being’s physical body or psychology, or any other living system, we can only put so much pressure on it before it begins to become stressed. If we continue, parts of it begin to fracture and, finally, there may be complete breakdown. I often wonder if there is any correlation between the mental health crisis, especially amongst our young (a staggering 7.2million people are currently being prescribed anti-depressant medication in the UK) and our ecological crisis.
Is our Torah part of the problem? This was the question one of my brothers asked me after he too watched the documentary. He questioned the impact of a verse from chapter 1 of the book of Bereshit (Genesis) – verse 28 – on the psyche of the billions of people in the world who have read the sacred myth of the creation of the first human being in our most ancient of wisdom texts – our Torah. The verse relates the divine invitation to Adam to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth with people and bring it under your control. Rule over the fish in the ocean, the birds in the sky, and every animal on the earth.”
I would like to suggest that this divine request to conquer and to dominate, which may have been appropriate and applicable in ancient times, is no longer a skilful way to encourage us humans to live on this planet. Let us instead turn to a verse in chapter 2 of Bereshit – which offers a radically different myth of the creation of the human being and our earth from that of chapter 1, and which was authored, so our wisest academics tell us, by a different hand than the one that composed chapter 1.
In verse 15 of chapter 2 of Bereshit, our Torah tells us that the Source of Life placed the first human being in the Garden of Eden and that their role is “to serve it and to protect it”. In this text, we humans are enjoined to take care of the land, to tread lightly upon it and to maintain it. I invite us to reflect on what we can do to inhabit our planet based on an orientation of reciprocity, of service, of love and of stewardship – rather than one of domination and superiority?
Last week, at our Zoomfest event, we hosted the non-profit EcoSynagogue (https://ecosynagogue.org/) to let us know about what we can do to promote environmental sustainability and engagement across the Jewish Community. EcoSynagogue is a cross-communal organisation led by rabbis from the Masorti, Liberal, Orthodox and Reform communities. It is such a joy for me to see how the Jewish people can come together (despite our denominational differences) to begin to do what is needed to work towards saving planet earth and to take seriously “our responsibility, as communities and individuals to protect our planet and leave it to our children and grandchildren in a state of wholeness and health.”