As we read about Creation, remember our destructive ways


Genesis 1:1-6:8

Isaiah 42:5-43:10

There is a debate within the environmental world about the proper human posture toward the preservation of diverse species. On the one hand, there are those who argue that extinction is the normal method through which nature keeps itself trim. Throughout the eons, a great many species have gone the way of the dodo bird and the Stegosaurus, no longer able to compete successfully for a habitable niche in a difficult world.

At the time of the year that we read about creation we can recall the enormously important findings of Charles Darwin: This constant cycle of evolution and extinction may be unfortunate, but it represents a strength of natural adaptation to changing conditions. It is through extinction, however, that life remains vital.

While that may be true, it is also now the case that the behavior of human beings is a significant factor in the survival of different species. The High Holy Days prayer “who shall live and who shall die” is eerie when seen in the light of our impact on other species.

Rabbi Brad Artson explains: In the past, extinction was the slow reconciliation between living things and their environment. Now it is the rapid (sometimes taking only few decades) intrusion of human thoughtlessness upon the natural order. Many species that are fully capable of surviving in the world cannot cope with what people are doing to our planet.

As we overfish our seas, deplete our forests and tropical jungles, pollute our air and water, destroy the ozone and pile up mountains of garbage, it is worth it to stop and inquire about the worth of all living things. Are animals and plants simply tools for humans to use as we choose, or is there a purpose to all things under the heavens?

In the Creation story, the Torah relates an unfolding of order over chaos, of life over death, as God’s word becomes tangible. Creation moves from simplicity to complexity, from homogeneity to diversity and, paradoxically, from chaos to order.

The rabbis of Midrash state their viewpoint unambiguously: “Even those things which you may regard as completely superfluous to the creation of the world, such as fleas, gnats and flies, even they are included in the creation of the world, and the Holy Blessed One carries out the divine purpose through everything, even through a snake, a scorpion, a gnat or a frog.”

It is no coincidence that the animals selected to illustrate the rabbis’ claim are precisely the most repulsive to most human beings. Too often, we presume to judge the worth of Creation by its appeal from a human perspective. The Midrash insists that our criteria are insufficient. The world does not exist merely to please us. While human beings do form the pinnacle of God’s creation, we need to be reminded that the world and the cosmos remain God’s creation, not our own.

Our stories tell of the insights the sages had to recognize scorpions and snakes, frogs and leaves as being of great importance. We, too, need to refocus our vision to be able to do the same.

The complex interdependence of living creatures of the myriad plants and animals that populate our globe are essential to the continuation of life, just as the remarkable range of cells and structures in the human body all contribute to its vitality. We diminish that variety at our own peril.

But the danger is more than simply one of physical survival. A second danger, more subtle, but no less real, emerges with our human insistence that the world should answer to human standards and human utility.

The glory of the world of which we are part is directed beyond us, reflecting the grandeur and transcendence of God as Creator. The humility inspired by nature’s dynamism is an essential component of our spiritual renewal and our continued wellbeing. May the New Year and the new cycle of reading Torah remind us of both.

Rabbi Larry Raphael is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.