Don’t Cut Off the Species (Human or Otherwise) – Emor 5779

In 1598, Dutch sailors landed on the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.  There, they discovered a creature that no human being had ever before seen.  They named the bird the Dodo.  Poor bird.  With such a name, you know it was doomed from the start.

The Dodo was not particularly fast, and it was incapable of flying.  Apparently, it was also rather tasty.  A hungry sailor, without much difficulty, could easily catch a Dodo and roast it up nice and juicy. Imported animals like pigs, dogs, and rats found that Dodo eggs made for a scrumptious snack, and were easy to steal out of the nest.

Within a few decades, the Dodo was no more.  It has since become the most famous extinct animal on the planet.  I suspect it might have something to do with the name.

It serves as a cautionary tale.  The Dodo’s range was limited to the small island of Mauritius, so it literally had nowhere else to go.  Human greed, lack of compassion, and absence of foresight led to the disappearance of this strange bird.

There are categories of Jewish law that address these character deficiencies.  The laws of Bal Tashchit prohibit us from using up resources wastefully.  Tza’ar ba’alei chayim, means the “suffering of living creatures,” and refers to commandments protecting animals from unnecessary suffering. These and other areas of Jewish law have their roots in the Torah.  One of the important sources of Jewish law regulating how we treat animals appears in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor.

Most of the parashah focuses on rules for the priests.  After describing special privileges as well as limitations on their behavior, God gives Moses instructions pertaining to animals that are brought by Israelites as sacrifices.  In the midst of these regulations, we read the following commandment:

וְשׁ֖וֹר אוֹ־שֶׂ֑ה אֹת֣וֹ וְאֶת־בְּנ֔וֹ לֹ֥א תִשְׁחֲט֖וּ בְּי֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃

No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.  (Lev. 22:28)

This verse seems fairly straightforward.  Most commentators connect this passage to another passage from the book of Deuteronomy.

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.  (Deut: 22:6-7)

Both passages address the relationship between an animal and its offspring.  In this morning’s parashah, the focus is on herd and flock animals.  In Deuteronomy, the focus is on bird eggs or fledglings that one may find in a nest.  For both commandments, the Torah offers no explanation or rationale.

Maimonides, the great medieval Rabbi, physician, and community leader, sees in these commandments a lesson about compassion.  He focuses on the emotional pain of the mother.

“There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings,” he writes, “since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings. If the Torah provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be to not cause grief to our fellow men.”  (Guide for the Perplexed III:48)

In other words, the Torah commands us to consider the emotional suffering of all living creatures.  Even though we are permitted to consume meat, we still must be concerned with the suffering of animals.  It is noteworthy that he does not hold that we should be merciful towards animals exclusively for their own sake.  Maimonides is ultimately concerned with the cultivation of character.  Compassion for animals is important because it conditions us to be compassionate towards our fellow human beings.

Nachmanides, living shortly after Maimonides, has great respect for his predecessor.  He quotes him often, although usually it is to disagree with his explanations. Nachmanides claims that both commandments are meant to discourage us from having a cruel and unforgiving heart.

Then he continues.  Even though we are permitted to eat meat, provided that we slaughter the animal correctly, the Torah does not permit us to be so destructive as to destroy the species.  When a person kills the mother and her offspring on the same day, or takes the eggs or fledglings without first sending away the mother bird, it is as if that person has cut off the entire species.  (Nachmanides on Deut. 22:7)

What a radical statement!  Slaughtering two generations of an animal on the same day, from a symbolic standpoint, is like eradicating the species.

I am pretty sure that the concept of species eradication was not on people’s minds in thirteenth century Spain.  For Nachmanides to bring it up is surprising.

Like Maimonides, Nachmanides is still mainly focused on the harmful effects that such a destructive action has on a person’s character.  If God was truly concerned with animals, why would we be allowed to eat them in the first place, and why would God have commanded that we offer them as sacrifices?  The Torah’s concern with animal suffering, or with species extinction, is ultimately about the harmful impact that such callous behavior has on the human soul. Nevertheless, Nachmanides seems to be aware that species extinction is a problem, and that human beings have an important role as caretakers of the earth which, after all, belongs to God.

Today, we are very much aware that species can become extinct through human carelessness and callousness – and not just symbolically.  Just look at the Dodo.

Two weeks ago, the United Nations issued a chilling report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.  It was the most comprehensive study of its kind.  Species are now going extinct at a rate between 10 and 100 times greater than the average over the past 10 million years, and the rate is increasing.  Out of the approximately 8 million species of plants and animals on earth, one million are at risk of extinction in the coming decades as a direct result of humanity’s impact on the planet.  

The report pointed to five primary ways that human activity has produced these deteriorations in ecosystems.  They are, starting with the greatest impact: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.

The Chair of the committee, Sir Robert Watson, warned: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.  We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

In other words, if we take a human-centered approach (like Maimonides and Nachmanides), the harm that we have caused to the global environment puts humanity at risk.

He goes on to say that all hope is not gone  “…it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global…  Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals.  By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

We have a lot of work to do.

Jewish law does not typically make broad, sweeping pronouncements upon entire industries.  It does not prescribe government regulations, nor does it make specific pronouncements about how to balance economic growth with sustainability.  

Jewish law tends to focus on the specific case before the individual.  It is concerned with the measurable impacts of a person’s behavior.  But Judaism does have something to say more generally about our relationship to the Earth, and our responsibility to the living things that call it home.

Nachmanides looked at the Torah’s prohibitions against slaughtering two generations of animals on the same day, and declared it to be the symbolic equivalent to species extinction.  

What would he say about the ways in which we consume the planet’s bounties today?  Or about the impact that human expansion has on waterways and forests?  Or how the pollution that is dumped into the air, water and ground when resources are extracted threatens the survival of indigenous plants and animals?

He might say that it comes down to how each of us consumes the resources of our planet.  We know that the impact of human progress extends way beyond what we see right in front of us.  We also know that the risk of species extinction is not merely symbolic.  We should not pretend otherwise.  We cannot bury our heads in the sand.

Psalms declares “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell within it.”  With the knowledge that we now have, can we say that our behavior, as a species, honors this sentiment?

What would it look like to live in a global society that honored the earth as belonging to God, and recognized that we are one of millions of species that depend on it to thrive?

Wouldn’t it be nice to know.

We Are Not the Center of Creation – Rosh Hashanah 5771

Rabbi Aryeh Levin, known as the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem”, lived from 1885 to 1969.  He told the story of how he once was walking in the fields with his teacher, Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook.  In the course of their Torah discussion, Rabbi Levin casually picked a flower. At this, Rav Kook remarked, “All my days I have been careful never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom.  You know the teaching of our sages that not a single blade of grass grows here on Earth that does not have an angel above it, commanding it to grow.  Every sprout and leaf says something meaningful, every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence.  Every creation sings its song.”

“These words of our great master,” Rabbi Levin concluded, “spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply in my heart. From that day on, I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for all things.” 

Every creation.  Everything that we encounter in this world, has a song that it sings.  And that makes today, Rosh Hashanah, a day that is not only for us, the Jewish people, or even for humanity, but for all of Creation.

During the musaf service, after hearing the sound of the shofar, we will recite Hayom harat olam – “Today is the world’s birthday.”

Birthdays are usually times for celebration.  For marking the achievements of the previous year and expressing our hopes for the year to come.  We can imagine the blades of grass with their angels, and the stones whispering hidden messages in the silence, celebrating.

But do we have the right to celebrate the world’s birthday?  Does humanity deserve an invitation to the party?

We seem to be living out of balance with nature.  Rav Kook’s poetic description of treasuring the potential for life wherever he found it is very far from what we experience today.  The imbalance in humanity’s relationship to the earth violates the sanctity of life and threatens our very existence.  For the sake of the world, and for our own sakes, humanity must develop a new understanding of its relationship to Creation.

For recorded history, humans have seen themselves as the ultimate purpose and goal of existence.  While Rosh Hashanah is the most universalistic of Jewish holidays, it still shifts back and forth between the question of whether we are celebrating the creation of the world or the creation of human beings.

A midrash teaches that the seven days of Creation began on the twenty fifth of Elul.  That makes the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, day six of creation, the day on which God made humanity.  We celebrate the world’s birthday on humanity’s birthday.

The universe used to be a much smaller place.  At first, the world was thought to be flat.  Later, the Greeks introduced the concept of a spherical earth at the center, encircled by the sun, moon, planets, and stars.

In the 16th century, Copernicus introduced the concept of heliocentrism, that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe.  It would take several centuries more to learn that this was not true either, and that our sun was just one of countless stars on the outer arm of one of countless galaxies.

Despite our growing awareness that humanity is infinitesimally small, and far from the center of anything, we continue to interact with our surroundings as if we are the be all and end all.  Science has not changed that at all.

Intellectually, we know that the earth, not to mention the solar system, galaxy, and universe, exists completely independent of us.  And yet, we live our lives as if they are meaningful.  As if there is a purpose to our being.  And as if there is a goal to which we are striving.  All of us do this.  We live as if our lives matter.  To love and to strive in an otherwise uncaring and unsympathetic universe is a fundamentally religious act.  An act of faith.

Do we have faith that humanity will survive?  Perhaps it’s a question for science fiction writers, or disaster movies, or apocalyptic doomsayers.  But maybe it is a question we should be asking.

An ancient midrash describes God as the Creator and Destroyer of worlds.  There were in fact many worlds that existed before our earth.  But God was unsatisfied with them, and so God destroyed them.  Like an artist throwing away a rough draft.  When it came to our world, God saw it, and declared this one, finally, to be good.

And then, at the end of the week, on the seventh day, God had one thing left to do.  The Torah states:  “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on that day He desisted from all His work that God created to make.”  (Gen. 2:3)

That final phrase, “that God created to make ” – asher bara elohim la-asot, has puzzled commentators.  It should have said that God desisted from all His work that he had made.  So why does it say “that God created to make.”?  The Chasidic Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, a senior pupil of The Magid of Mezeritch, writes: “That God created to make” means that the work of creation, of mending, of completion of the world continues, and is left in the hands of Israel (Maor Einayim, Ha’azinu).”

Putting it together, ours is not the first world to exist.  There have been others.  God approved this time around, calling it tov, good, but the work of creating is not yet done.  The jury is still out on this one.  There is a distinct possibility that we humans could wipe ourselves out of existence.  And God, and the universe, will go right on without us.

The well known prayer, Adon Olam, presents this possibility quite clearly:  v’acharei kichlot hakol, levado yimlokh nora – And after everything ceases to exist, God will continue to rule in awesomeness.

As partners in creation, or rather, as the ones to whom the continuing work of creation has been handed over, it is up to humanity to create, mend, and complete the world.  How are we doing with that?

From an ecological perspective, not so great.  Species are disappearing at between 100 to 1000 times the average extinction rates in the evolutionary time scale of planet Earth due to habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.

When humans come along and clearcut a forest for the lumber, or blow up a mountain top to get at the coal underneath, or overfish a fish population into near or actual extinction, do we, in our suburban homes, bear some responsibility?  When a large multinational company introduces genetically modified organisms that breed with and then take over native species, have we committed some wrong?

We are very insulated from these kinds of questions out here in Northern California with our progressive environmental laws and liberal attitudes.  It is very easy to blame others.  We fault nations that don’t have the same laws we have.  We criticize companies that do everything they can to maximize shareholder profits, and avoid having to pay the actual environmental and other costs.  

But the truth is, we ourselves benefit from their avoiding responsibility.  We enjoy a pretty nice lifestyle.  Our gas is inexpensive.  Coal fueled electricity is cheap.  We can buy organic grapes from Chile for $1.49 a pound on sale.  We can fill our homes with consumer junk that we don’t need from the other side of the world.  And when the garbage accumulates, we get rid of it and it gets dumped in the landfill, or shipped off to some impoverished nation.  But as long as we don’t have to look at it, we treat it as “out of sight, out of mind.”

There is a cost to this lifestyle.  It is a cost that humanity may end up having to pay on a global scale.  From a purely self-serving perspective, humanity needs to change the ways that we interact with our planet.  

In his chilling book, Collapse, Jared Diamond explores a number of unconnected civilizations separated by time and place that experienced sudden and total collapses.  He notes that in all of them, the civilization reached its peak population and resource use shortly before its precipitous demise.  His final chapter points out that humanity is now a single civilization – the result of the globalization of transportation, communication, and economies.  If our global civilization follows the pattern of earlier societies, then we will have nowhere else to go when the collapse occurs.

But it is not only out of self-interest that humanity needs to change its relationship to the natural world.  One of the messages of Rosh Hashanah is that we are but a part of Creation.  Adonai is the God of all that is.  If we are celebrating the birthday of the entire world, what would be an appropriate birthday gift?

The new year is the season for teshuvah.  It will culminate next week with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Atonement is the final step, when God wipes away the stains that have adhered to our souls.  Our tradition teaches that for sins between us and our fellow human beings, full atonement does not come unless we first appease the one whom we have wronged.  Although it is not easy, we know how to do this with each other.

But how do we appease the earth?  What is the language of teshuvah that the earth and its creatures understand?  How do we ask them for forgiveness?

Take the BP oil spill.  It is not a question of how much money the shrimpers are going to get, the destruction of the economy, tourism, and so on.  BP should repay all of those things, and probably will.  But that will not bring kapparah, atonement, for the ocean and seashores, and the creatures that make them their home.

The same question is asked for all of the results of the last two hundred years of progress and development.  How do we ask the earth for forgiveness?

Our global civilization has begun the conversation, but it is far from over.  As populations continue to grow, putting even greater strains on the world, this will be the dominant conversation of the twenty first century.

Religion, which continues to play a central role in how people around the world perceive themselves in their environment, will have a critical voice in this conversation.  Our Jewish tradition has much to contribute.

The first lesson that Judaism offers is that which was expressed in the story of Rav Kook.  We have to be open to experiencing the nes b’tokh hateva, the miracle that is inherent in Nature.  Heschel writes of radical amazement.  If we truly understood that God could be found not only within the creatures and objects of Creation, but also within the very processes of nature, would we continue to overstep our bounds?  Would we not come to discover that we are not separate from Creation, but are rather intimately connected with it?  We are just not yet awake to this fact.

The second lesson is about the importance of rest.  The Torah’s description of the origins of the world, which is the dominant Creation story for a good portion of humanity, culiminates in day seven.  The Sabbath Day.

The chiddush, the great innovation in the Torah, is that humans can rest.  Other religions believed that the gods made humans to serve them, but the Torah says that we rest with God as partners in Creation.  But Sabbath rest is not just for humans, but for animals also, and even for the land itself.  Every seven years, the land of Israel is supposed to observe a sabbath from cultivation.  At the end of the book of Numbers, the Torah describes what will happen if Israel fails to observe the sabbatical years.  It will result in environmental devastation and exile.  The land will then take back its lost sabbaths – on its own terms.

Shabbat is about more than just not going to work on Saturday.  It is a reorientation of our expectations for how we live on earth.  The idea of Shabbat is that we humans are not at the center of existence.  

In our world today, there is no rest.  We don’t give ourselves a break, and we don’t give the earth and its creatures a break.

Rosh Hashanah, like Shabbat, teaches that there are other, more important, more sustainable measures of a nation’s success than Gross Domestic Product.

We are taking some steps in the right direction.  Governments, and some companies, are involved in discussions of how to create more sustainable economies.  As humanity shifts its orientation, it is important for us to take steps in our own lives.  There are many things we have already done.  But there is always more.  

Driving a fuel efficient vehicle, a hybrid, or soon, an electric car.

Switching our homes, businesses, and hopefully one day soon, our synagogue, over to solar energy.

And simple things, like bringing our own bags with us to the grocery store when we go shopping.  Making an effort to buy locally produced food, which in California is not such a difficult or unpleasant thing to do.  

Making our personal decisions from the perspective of sustainability, and respect for Creation.

These are all valid, important steps.  But they are largely symbolic.  The real problem will only be solved when humanity makes a collective decision to do so.

Hayom, today, this Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the birthday of the entire world and its creatures, let us pay particularly close attention to the sound of the shofar.  Let its cry remind us of Creation, and call us to teshuvah, not just towards one another, but towards all creatures and the earth itself.

During musaf, we sound the shofar, and then three times, we say Hayom harat olam.  Often translated “today is the birthday of the world,” it in fact means something quite different.  Harat does not mean birth, but pregnant.  Olam, in the Bible does not mean earth, but eternity.  Hayom harat olam “Today is eternally pregnant.”  Today holds endless possibilities, but also great uncertainty. 

And then, we say hayom ya’amid bamishpat kol y’tzurei-olamim.  “Today all Creation is called to stand in judgment.”

 May this day of judgment teach us that without our responsible stewardship, the creatures of all the worlds, y’tzurei olamim, even the earth itself, cannot stand and endure. 

And then we recite at the end of our service:  Chayim kulchem hayom, “Today we are alive on this planet.”  Today our choices will gestate the future, for ourselves, for our children, and for the children of every species upon the earth.

Hayom t’amtzeinu.  “Today may we find courage.”  Hayom t’varcheinu.  “Today may we be blessed.”  Hayom ticht’veinu l’chayim tovim.  “Today may we be inscribed to live.”

May we find hope, may we find courage, may we find blessing, in this moment filled with birth and death, pregnant with eternity.

Hayom im b’kolo tishma-u.” Today, if we will listen to the Voice.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu.  May we, the earth, and all who live on it be written and sealed for a good year.