Think back to the last time you voluntarily killed a living creature. Perhaps it was an ant in your kitchen, or a spider in your bedroom, a squirrel that had gotten into your attic or a rat that had gotten into your compost. How did it feel to kill that creature? How does it feel now that you think back on it? Do you regret it? Would you do it again?
Prior to this week’s Torah portion, the Rabbis teach that humans were vegetarian. (Sanhedrin 59b) It would seem that in this way, God valued all living creatures equally. Part of the perfection of the Garden of Eden is in this equality of all of God’s creation. Indeed, the Rabbis suggested that God created humans from the “upper” and “lower firmaments” so that there would be peace on earth without the upper or lower firmaments thinking one was greater than the other.
“On the sixth day, God came to create man. Said God: ‘If I create him belonging to the celestial world, this will outnumber the terrestrial by one creation, and there will be no peace in the universe; while if he is of the terrestrial world it will be likewise. But lo! I will create him as partaking of both the celestial and the terrestrial worlds, for the sake of peace.” (Bereishit Rabbah 12:8)
At least for some of our sages in some periods of history, humans are considered united with, rather than above all of creation.
This is so interesting when we consider that in this week’s parshat Noach, God destroyed all but two of each species that lived on the land or flew in the sky because “the earth had become corrupted.” (Bereshit 6:11). We learn that this corruption was a result of human sin, mostly of a sexual or violent nature, but also having to do with theft and deception. (Rashi on Bereshit 6:11) God created humans with the power to destroy by our behavior the earth and all that is on it. Makes sense when you consider that we are in relationship with all of creation; one species’ actions can affect the whole system. Only Noah was righteous in his generation; only Noah listened to God and took care of God’s creation as God intended it to be cared for: respectfully and consciously. Only Noah saw himself as part of, rather than apart from, creation.
Noah’s righteousness is apparent in his care for the animals. He “walked with God” (Bereshit 6:9), meaning that he listened to God’s instructions, for example, by bringing food onto the ark for him, his family (the only other humans to survive the flood), and all the animals.
God’s gift after the flood to Noach, and by extension to us, is that we can now eat animals. The dominion over animals given to humans in Bereishit 1:27, compared with the Rabbis’ notion that humans were created equal to the rest of creation, is perhaps an example of God’s and our own ambivalence about being the stewards of every other plant and animal species. Noah’s care of the animals taken in light of permission to eat the animals seems to suggest that he owns them and can do what he wants with them. We, like God and our Sages, seem also to be ambivalent about our role as stewards of the rest of creation.
Modern consumerist culture perpetuates the position that we are in a hierarchical relationship with the rest of creation. For example, we measure the health of our economy by the production of new goods, such as the number of new homes built in a fiscal period. We don’t measure the concomitant destruction of creature or vegetative life. So a new home might also mean the extirpation of a grass or flower species or the extinction of a bug species. It might mean the further sectioning of a bird’s or fox’s feeding grounds, causing the bird to have to fly further, the fox to hunt longer for its food. That in turn can mean the eventual loss of a species to the area.
What would happen if we measured the health of our economy by the number of new saplings developing in a forest or the return of species to an area that has been environmentally rehabilitated? What would happen if we looked at our food, our homes, our clothing, our computers as gifts given to us by the earth, rather than as our right to take as the superior species in the hierarchy of species?
The Potawatomi (indigenous people of the upper mid-west and members of the Algonquian family) biologist Robin Wall Kimmer writes that “the essence of the gift is that it creates relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a ‘bundle of rights,’ whereas in a gift economy property has a ‘bundle of responsibilities’ attached.” Kimmer knows what most of us are unaware of: that the pecan trees, for example, work as a community when growing their fruit. They are as cunningly designed, in their own way, as we are. (From Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of the Plants.)
Upon exiting the ark after the waters subside, Noah “built an altar to God and, taking of every pure animal and of every pure bird, offered burnt offerings on the altar. God smelled the pleasing odor, and God said to Himself, ‘Never again will I doom the earth because of humans…” (Bereishit 8:20-21). Noah offered animals on his altar in an attempt to show gratitude and love to God who saved enough of creation so that creation could continue in spite of the human capacity to act immorally. The man who loved and cared for the animals also loved and cared for his God. He then planted a garden, perhaps suggesting to us that if we are to take from the earth and from the animals for our own sustenance, let us be sure that we are taking in a responsible way, only what we need, and ensuring conditions for the continuation of every species.
This week’s parshah teaches us another way of honoring and striving to emulate God. Maimonides teaches that God wants us to show compassion and respect to the animals just as God shows us compassion and respect. We can emulate Noah and learn to emulate God by making better choices in our buying, or even better, by buying less and being grateful more. We can see ourselves and our children in a reciprocal relationship with all of creation rather than in power over it.
*Published by Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, October 8, 2018 and in Living Nonviolence, Friday, October 19, 2018