Sunday, October 7, 2012

Outside the Garden / Parshat Bereishit

Parshat Bereishit paints a picture of primordial paradise in Gan Eden: verdant beauty; no deadlines, dangers, or difficult challenges; a self-regulating climate. The first man and woman have merely to extend an arm to pluck food from the trees. Way better than Club Med or a Carnival Cruise. We might well ask: if Gan Eden is paradise, why must Adam tend and till the garden? (In my perfect world, no gardening is required.) The parashah teaches us that physical pleasure is a blessing from God, and the blessing of physical pleasure serves to remind us that our enjoyment should not come at the expense of the environment that sustains us and of which we are a part.  

Adam takes with him from the picture-perfect garden into the world beyond rake, hoe, and shovel, the tools with which he tended the garden in his role as steward. Both inside and outside the garden, he is earth’s caretaker. So, too, are we, even in a world of seeming abundant resources. Given the human proclivity for self-preservation, often leading to selfishness, this is a crucial lesson. For far too long we have seen the world as our garden of delights, created to provide us sensual satisfactions. We cannot continue this way: we are the tenders and tillers.

In The Ecology of Eden, Evan Eisenberg posits that the Tower Culture of Mesopotamia (reflected in parshat Noach) stands in contrast with the Mountain Culture of Canaan and ancient Israel (reflected in the teachings throughout Torah).

What is at stake? Our earth.
For the peoples of Mesopotamia, their cities were the heart of their existence. In the center of their cities stood a ziggurat, a sacred tower, that testified to human strength and generative power. The ancient peoples of Mesopotamia scooped up earth’s resources and invented wheeled vehicles, metalworking, yokes and harnesses. While they innovated the arch, the dome, surveying and mapping, and mathematics, they also gave us professional armies, siege engines, war chariots, and a rigid division of social classes. 
This is the world into which Abraham was born, and the world he left at God’s behest. Abraham founded a Mountain Culture, where the goal is to live in harmony with the natural environment, worshiping not human creations, but the Creator. Israel coalesces around their encounter with God at Mt. Sinai in the Wilderness and commits to a Torah that forbids wasting resources and despoiling trees, and provides for the land to renew itself every seven years.

Paul L. Wachtel penned a psychological portrait of America’s presumptions concerning economic growth, acquisition, status, and happiness in The Poverty of Affluence. Wachtel wrote prophetically that our dogged pursuit of economic growth is self-defeating. Status quo is perceived as failure; only becoming more affluent meets the American standard for “success.” So we buy more, use more, consume more – and it has a devastating effect on the environment. Wachtel concludes: "The key to forging a future that we can look upon with hopeful anticipation is not in making us more 'competitive'. It is in making us more perceptive, more able to realize what we have, what we need, and the longer term consequences of the short-term choices we are making.” This is true not only for our status and happiness, but for the wellbeing of the earth.

Midrash Kohelet (on Ecclesiasties) articulates a startling and prescient warning:

 “Upon creating the first human beings, God guided [Adam and Eve] around the Garden of Eden, saying, ‘Look at My creations! See how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! I created everything for you. Make sure you don’t ruin or destroy My world. If you do, there will be no one after you to repair it.’” (Kohelet 7:13)

Many of us recycle, compost, use compact fluorescent lights, and drive hybrid cars. But have we appreciably reduced our consumption and waste? On the national and global level, the pursuit of renewable sources of energy moves at a glacial pace. Closer to home, the social change that severs the equation between “success” and acquisition, remains firmly intact. 

Physical pleasure is a blessing, a blessing that reminds us that outside the Garden, resources are limited and we are earth’s divinely appointed stewards.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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