This well-known midrash is estimated to be from around the eighth century CE. It explores the creation story, and informs us that God is not a caretaker who will come in when we have made a mess, clearing it up for the next users. As 21st century readers it seems prophetic: we also cannot assume future generations will be able to clean up our mess. We may even have well-founded concerns about their very existence.
Kohelet Rabbah 7:13
“When God created the first human beings, God led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”
This beautiful midrash is of course not the only message one may take from Jewish tradition about how we engage with creation. Sometimes it is voices from outside our community that can help us think through the impact of our theologies. James Lovelock, who turns 100 this year, is an independent scientist, environmentalist, and futurist. He is best known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis, which postulates that the Earth functions as a self-regulating system. If you have time try reading Lovelock alongside the two creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2 which inspired Kohelet Rabbah.
“The notion of religion becoming involved in the environment, I think, is nothing but a good thing, provided that they cure themselves – and most religions have it – of a strange concept called stewardship of the Earth. We are not stewards of the Earth – we never could be. It’s sheer foolish pride to imagine that we’re clever enough yet to regulate the Earth. It is an unbelievably complex system, and we couldn’t possibly take on the job. But if, on the other hand, the religions… would look at the Earth as God’s creation and sacred and not something to be desecrated, then I can’t see anything but good coming from it”.
As we move through the month of Elul we have the opportunity to work on ourselves, in the hope that we might begin a new year ready to make changes and to be the person we feel we could be. At Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birthday of the world, and as we begin 5780 we know that our actions are increasingly not only impacting on our ‘environment’ (as if we ourselves were somehow detached from it) but changing and endangering our futures in the world.
This Elul, therefore, Reform Judaism is focussing on what wisdom and reflection Judaism can offer us, and encourage us in the changes necessary to make a difference in the upcoming year. Though we begin with ourselves, we do not end with ourselves. The changes we make, in our attitudes, understanding and behaviour affect all around us – our families, communities, our work place, the organisations we belong to, the government and the world itself. It begins with us.
The texts and reflections for this series have been drawn together by Rabbi Jeffrey Newman and Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, together with members of the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors who are credited individually when appropriate. Reflecting together and learning in partnership has made this a much more meaningful process for us, and if you have the time and someone willing, we hope these texts might also provide a wonderful opportunity for learning with a partner (or chavruta). As Pirkei Avot 1:6 says “make for yourself a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend”.