May 11, 2017

Mother Nature, Mother Earth: I Love You. I Thank You.

What follows is a brief essay I shared with the board of directors of my synagogue, Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, on the occasion of my last meeting as Board President. I figured it’s timely, given that we recently celebrated Earth Day, swiftly followed by Mother’s Day. Let’s thank them, those mothers: we owe them everything.

“Nature” and “environment” are modern terms that have arisen out of our separation from the natural world. The ancient Israelites depended on nature for their daily livelihood: rain and the success of their crops determined their fate, and nature was an integral part of their lives. In a culture where the wisdom and force of nature were experienced each day and often each moment, terms like “environment” and “nature” have no meaning.

The Jewish understanding that the Earth belongs to God attests to the fact that the Earth and everything in it is holy, and this concept of holiness, kedushah, is the beginning of the Jewish environmental ethic.

When we reflect on our relationship with Nature and with Earth, we note that, in the Biblical story, humans are made from earth. The Hebrew word for man — Adam — and for ground or soil — Adamah — are meant to underscore that, by their very nature, human and Earth are inseparably linked.

Adamah is also the substance from which all other life comes. In Genesis 2:9, we learn that, “out of this ground (adamah) the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” And in 2:19, “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and bird of the air.” Thus, humans share a fundamental identity with every other form of life.

That humans are made from earth also defines our role in the garden, our vocation. In Genesis 2:15, the first humans are commanded to till and tend the Earth.

So our primary task — indeed our fundamental role — is to care for the garden, to be stewards of God's creation. Service to the Earth is an essential responsibility of humans — and, I would submit, an essential part of being human. When this relationship with the soil, when this obligation to be caring stewards of creation, is ruptured or broken, when we become estranged from our connection to the Earth, to the seasons, and to the plenitude of plants and animals with which we share habitat, then we have forgotten our roots and we become less than fully human.

As Jews, we have a special imperative to be careful and caring stewards of God's creation — that we take care of natural resources not only for our own purposes and use, but for the rich diversity of plants and animals with which we share habitat. In other words, we have to ensure that there are enough of the world's resources not only for us, but also for the trees, and flowers, and fishes, and insects.

In a book titled The View From Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World, Carl Safina writes, “Just as we went from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to civilized societies, now we must take the next great leap: from merely civilized to humanized.”

Safina says we should be asking not, “What is the meaning of life?” But, rather, we should ask, “Where is the meaning in life?” And he suggests that the place to look is “between.” In other words, we should look for the ways that all living creatures and all habitats are connected, to look for what happens “between” them. “Relationships are the music life makes,” Safina says. “Context creates meaning.”

Dominique Browning, in her New York Times review of his book, pointed out that Safina returns again and again to this consideration of interconnectedness, and to the need for each person to cultivate a more considerate life: “To advance compassion and yet survive in a world of appetites - that is our challenge.” He calls for reverence and caution, and a humbling awareness that future generations must live with the consequences of the decisions we make today. “Ecology, family, community, religion — these words all grope toward the same need: connection, belonging, purpose.”

Mother’s Day ought to be a time to thank Mother Nature, a time for us to be reminded of our connectedness, our utter dependence on the rest of creation for our survival, the fact that no matter what our faith tradition, no matter what our race or gender or political party, no matter which sports teams we pledge allegiance to (Go Cubs!), or which day is our day of rest and worship, we all breathe the same air and depend on the same great lake for our water. (I write this from Chicago.)

Marshall McLuhan once said, “There are no passengers on spaceship Earth; we are all crew.”

Let us move, however awkwardly, however lurchingly, from hubris — the belief that man has dominion over the natural world, and that the Earth's resources are to serve us alone — to humility, to the recognition that there are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.

Tonight, regard the fullness of the moon. Consider our connections to the rest of creation. Pledge to spend some time outside, maybe once each season, repairing our broken world.