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Elul Reflection: 4 Elul 5779

Repairing Ourselves and the World

Rosh Hashanah, the climax for which we prepare during Elul, is both the time of teshuva, repair (Tikkun) of ourselves vis-à-vis God and all creation, and as a celebration of the creation of the world. Repair is needed for each of us and for the world.

The first chapter of Genesis describes the creation of the world by the Divine, not as a haphazard event, but instead as carefully planned. Every step leads to the next and indeed is necessary for the next. Everything is prepared, and everything is ready.  While our ancestors may not have used the modern language of environmentalism and ecology, as the plan was fulfilled, there was a clear understanding that the cycle of dependencies was complete.  While this plan also makes it clear that humanity is the culmination of creation, this does not deny the importance and indeed the ultimate essential unity of the entirety.  Humanity is given dominion over creation, and all the animals and plants as food. They alone are blessed.  Humanity, created in the image of the divine, is vested with a responsibility, to act with the same care and sense of responsibility as God did when the earth was created.

The rabbis explicitly understood the human responsibility to care for the earth, and the repercussions if we fail in the responsibility. The Midrash teaches, “When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, God took him and led him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.” This Midrash stresses the divine concern for all the aspects of creation, reminding Adam (and all of us) that it is far easier to destroy than create. It is also a graphic reminder that God will not be there, if we destroy our environment, to pick up the pieces.

The greatest idolatry of humanity is our propensity to see ourselves as separate from the rest of creation, and as absolute masters of the world, utilizing our short-term political necessities and economic benefits (or costs) as rationalizations not to take action.  Through overhunting, deforestation (especially destruction of rain forests), environmental degradation, and global warming, we, who were tasked with caring for the world and its creatures, instead seem bent on destruction.  Sadly, even the thoughts that our descendants will suffer due to our decisions, does little to motivate action. Two thousand years ago the Midrash addressed this issue, “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught a parable: Men were on a ship. One of them took a drill and started drilling underneath him. The others said to him: What are you doing?! He replied: What do you care. Is this not underneath my area that I am drilling?! They said to him: But the water will rise and flood us all on this ship.” When we fail to take up the obligation of “repair,” and instead continue to destroy the earth and forget that we are not alone, then all will suffer, not only those who actively destroy.

-- Rabbi David A. Kunin, Jewish Community of Japan, Tokyo

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