The festivals of the Jewish religion do call upon us to stand before God, in awe at His majesty, trembling before His judgments, but that is not the dominant mood of the Jewish faith. The festivals celebrate, in joy, the cycle of three seasons of nature. The rabbis even insisted that “he who has denied himself any one of the rightful joys of this work is a sinner” (Baba Kama 91b). The highest form of obedience to God’s commandments is to do them not in mere acceptance but in the nature of union with Him. In such a joyous encounter between man and God, the very rightness of the world is affirmed.
The encounter of God and man in nature is thus conceived in Judaism as a seamless web with man as the leader, and custodian, of the natural world. Even in the many centuries when Jews were most involved in their own immediate dangers and destiny, this Universalist concern has never withered…
Now, when the whole world is in peril, when the environment is in danger of being poisoned, and various species, both plant and animal, are becoming extinct, it is our Jewish responsibility to put the defense of the whole of nature at the very center of our concern…Man was given dominion over nature, but he was commanded to behave towards the rest of creation with justice and compassion.
Man lives, always, in tension between his power and the limits set by conscience.
Our ancestor Abraham, inherited his passion for nature from Adam. The later rabbis never forgot it. Some 20 centuries ago they told the story of two men who were out on the water in a rowboat.
Suddenly, one of them started to saw under his feet. He maintained that it was his right to do whatever
he whished with the place that belonged to him. The other answered him that they were in the rowboat together — the hole that he was making would sink both of them (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6).
We have a responsibility to life, to defend everywhere, not only against our own sins, but also against those of others. We are now all passengers, together, in this same fragile and glorious world. Let us safeguard our rowboat — and let us row together.
By Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg
Vice President, World Jewish Congress