Rabbi Joel Alter: Surprises in Genesis | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Rabbi Joel Alter: Surprises in Genesis

Climate change and Rosh Hashanah? I can’t consider the two together without returning, as I do so often, to the opening chapter of Torah, which describes the fundamental nature of the world and our place in it, according to our ancestors’ understanding. The enduring power of Genesis 1 attests to our deep identification with its core truth. That is, when we look at the world, we sense the same order as our ancestors.  

Among the surprises of the Torah’s first creation story, in which all that comes to be in just six days, is how it conveys stable abundance. The world as God wills it has all that it needs, from the sun, the moon, and the stars down to teeming schools of fishes, swarming beetles. When I witness the ballet of aspen leaves flickering green and silver, it feels elemental. Everything in God’s world is provided with a defined realm or habitat and the resources it needs to thrive. Further, each species, whether plant or animal, bears the means to reproduce itself distinctly and in perpetuity. In scientific terms, the created world is a stable ecosystem. 

Another surprise in the telling is humanity’s unique role. We are like the animals in that we share their blessing “to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Yet we are separate and apart from them in that we are to “conquer” the rest of creation. We are to have “dominion” over all the other creatures. And yet we are to sustain ourselves on a vegetarian diet – just as the animals themselves are (Genesis 1:26-30). 

Still another surprise in Genesis 1: the world exists only by virtue of the boundaries God establishes between night and day, and water and land. Significantly, the burgeoning life that begins to emerge on the third day follows the fixed distinction between water and land established earlier that same day. God transforms a world utterly inimical to life into one gloriously sustaining of it. How? By introducing boundary-making correspondences (light and the enclosures of sky and sea) to the elements, namely, darkness and water, that, unbounded, smothered life, leaving only chaos (tohu va’vohu). 

Given God’s unique, world-making role in creating the world as we know it, we must consider what Genesis 1 might mean with its announcement of our assigned role to claim and dominate the world. We know it cannot mean for us to exploit the world only for our own benefit even to its ruination. The notion that God would create a harmoniously balanced world, fashion us in God’s creative, life-giving image, and establish our dominion over creation, only so that we might spoil it, is simply not tenable in the text. Rather, our stature is imbued with privilege and priority to be sure, but its essence is responsibility.  

Fascinatingly, Genesis 1 is simultaneously theocentric (God at the center) and androcentric (humans at the center). The story understands God and humans both as benevolent rulers. God’s benevolence goes without saying for the Torah. With regard to humans, however, Genesis 1 calls on us to rise to the high office to which we’re appointed. Genesis 1 knows exactly who we are and what we are capable of, both as life-sustainers and death and chaos-makers.   

Human despoilation of the natural world, and our poisoning of our own created spaces, are not new phenomena. The climate change we are now experiencing, then, is the accumulated breaking of a long-gathering storm. But as we now understand, there are practices in developed, developing, and consumerist societies that are dramatically accelerating and intensifying the changes. And some destructive practices are wholly new, whether in essence or in scale. Further, our persistence in these destructive practices contradicts the insights of climate science. It fails to apply our available understanding in constructive, crisis-ameliorating ways. Are we exercising our dominion responsibly or recklessly? It’s painful even to ask the question.  

I know that pointing fingers is easy, that laying out climate “shoulds” is a whole lot easier with regard to others’ behavior than our own. Responsibility will always mean (sometimes) giving up what we want in deference to what’s needed. Responsibility is hard.  

But our world is out of balance. The boundaries God established to realize His expressed desire for life are breaking. The glaciers are melting. The seas are rising up upon the land. The carefully calibrated seasons, and the weather patterns associated with them, are dangerously misaligned. Habitats are failing and species are expiring. Human welfare, too, is suffering. And, as is always true in human society, those with fewer resources are more exposed to the new dangers, more vulnerable to their attendant suffering, than those with more. There is no harmony in this. Only disharmony. Injustice. And much pain and death.  

Famously, Rosh Hashanah celebrates Creation. We are part of that creation. We have a role to play. The Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur – call on us to embrace a shining opportunity: to come to terms with both our failings and our promise and to begin again. For return and restoration are our path this season. In our personal lives, and in our role as advocates, let us be lifted up by Rosh Hashanah this year. May we honor the glorious abundance we are charged to maintain. Our responsibility is our dignity. Our divine image.   

The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle focused on climate change for the season of the world’s birthday, Rosh Hashanah. This article is part of that series for 2023/5784.