Bereishit -subduing the earth or serving her – not slaves but co-creators to protect and nurture our world

L’italiano segue l’inglese

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֘ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:

And God blessed them; and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.’  (Genesis 1:28)

The stories of creation found in the first chapters of the book of Genesis provide the foundation for the myth of human ownership of the world; something which has allowed us to feel ourselves permitted to exploit and use the natural world for our own benefit.  And no verse has been quite so powerful in this myth as the one quoted above – translating the verbs as humanity “subduing / ruling / dominating” the earth.

But this reading is, at best, a partial understanding of the texts of Creation, and I would like to offer a more nuanced and less literalist view.

To begin – the verbs whose roots are

כבש   רדד  / רדה

Have multiple meanings, but for each of them the base meaning from which subdue/dominate arises is the physical act of treading down/ trampling /spreading out.  It would not be too far a literary stretch in the context of the words coming before – be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth – to read the next part of the verse as “and stretch out/make pathways over her (the earth), and stretch [your reach] over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every living thing on the earth.  The root כבש

Is used today to describe roads and pathways – the methods by which we extend our ability to travel the earth.

But should this be a “spreading out” too far for some readers, one must also be aware of the context of this verse – both historically in terms of other earlier creation myths, and textually in the Book of Genesis.

Enumah Elish, the Babylonian myth of creation, describes the creation of humankind like this:

“Blood will I form and cause bone to be
Then will I set up a “lullu” [savage], ‘Man’ shall be his name!
Yes, I will create savage Man!
(Upon him) shall the services of the gods be imposed
That they may be at rest.”

For the Babylonians, the creation of human beings is about them being the slaves of the divinities, freeing the gods from the actual work of the world.  Human beings would work the earth, and provide the food and drink and other necessities or desires of the gods through sacrifices and libations.

It is this mythic story that informs the biblical creation stories, and some of the dynamic of owner/owned from the Enumah Elish may be found in the biblical text – but this is a very different creation story, with the human being created ‘b’tzelem Elohim’, and the self-sufficient God going on to offer the plant based foods for all the newly created beings, both human and animal.

This is also not the only creation story in Bible, and one cannot read the first iteration in Chapter 1 without the second iteration in Chapter 2 – the story of the Garden of Eden.

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ:

And the Eternal God took the human, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it

The verbs here are quite different

עבד שמר

Mean literally to serve and to guard/protect.

So even if we took the verbs in chapter one to mean “to rule/to subdue” the earth, here in chapter two that dimension is mitigated greatly. The role of the paradigmatic human being is that of carer for the earth, serving it rather than exploiting it.

Any power of the ownership implied in the first story must now be understood to be that of the obligation to nurture and guard something that is precious to God. To work with God (rather than for the gods) is to have an authority and role in creation, it gives no permission to use or exploit without care or consideration for the earth and its future.

The rabbinic tradition clearly understands this – and reminds us that we are not to exceed our powers, not to selfishly take and exploit and damage in order to meet our own desires and needs – indeed this would bring us back full circle to the Enumah Elish and the selfish greedy lazy and thoughtless gods. Famously in Midrash Kohelet Rabbah we read

“Look at God’s work – for who can straighten what He has twisted? When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, God took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you. “ (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

Read together, the two creation stories provide a picture of the complex and important relationship between humanity, God and nature.  God, having created the world to be self-sustaining, is still involved through the work of human beings. We are, as ever, the hands of God in the world. We can manage and care for the natural world, sometimes – as in a garden- having to be creative in order to get the best results. Any gardener will tell about the importance of pruning, of digging up weeds by the roots,  of dead heading or thinning plants – all things that may seem “heavy handed” but ultimately provide the best environment.

Is our role to subdue the world or to spread out within it, causing fruitfulness and the fullness of nature?  I would suggest that the long standing myth of our being the pinnacle of creation meaning we have the right to dominate the world is a misunderstanding at a very deep level. To serve and to protect the earth – it is for this we were created, and this is how we most profoundly embody the idea of our being ‘b’tzelem Elohim”

Bereishit: sottomettere la terra o servirla, non schiavi ma co-creatori per proteggere e nutrire il nostro mondo

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֘ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:

E Dio li benedisse; e Dio stesso disse loro: Prolificate, moltiplicatevi, empite la terra e rendetevela soggetta; dominate sui pesci del mare, e sui volatili del cielo e su tutti gli animali che si muovono sulla terra.” (Genesi 1:28)

Le storie della creazione che si trovano nei primi capitoli del libro della Genesi forniscono le basi per il mito della proprietà umana del mondo: qualcosa che ci ha permesso di sentirci autorizzati a sfruttare e usare il mondo naturale a nostro vantaggio. E nessun verso è stato così potente in questo mito quanto quello sopra citato, per tradurre i verbi relativi all’agire dell’umanità in “sopraffare, controllare, dominare” la terra.

Ma questa lettura è, nella migliore delle ipotesi, una comprensione parziale dei testi della Creazione, e vorrei offrire una visione più sfumata e meno letterale.

Per cominciare, i verbi le cui radici sono  רדה / רדד  כבש  hanno significati multipli, ma per ognuno di essi il significato base da cui emerge ‘sottomettere o dominare’ è l’atto fisico di schiacciare, calpestare, spargere. Non sarebbe troppo una forzatura letteraria nel contesto delle parole che precedono ‘siate fecondi, moltiplicate e riempite la terra’ leggere la parte successiva del verso come “e allungatevi, percorretela (la terra), e allungate [la vostra portata] sui pesci del mare e sugli uccelli del cielo e su ogni cosa vivente sulla terra”.

La radice כבש oggi è usata per descrivere strade e percorsi, i metodi con cui estendiamo la nostra capacità di viaggiare sulla terra.

Ma se questo dovesse essere un “allargamento” eccessivo per alcuni lettori, si deve anche essere consapevoli del contesto di questo versetto: sia storicamente, in termini di altri miti della creazione precedente, sia testualmente, nel Libro della Genesi.

Enumah Elish, il mito babilonese della creazione, descrive la creazione dell’umanità in questo modo:

“Formerò il sangue e farò esistere l’osso

Quindi creerò un “lullu” [selvaggio], “Uomo” sarà il suo nome!

Sì, creerò un uomo selvaggio!

(Su di lui) saranno imposti i servizi degli dei

Che possano essere in pace.”

Per i babilonesi, la creazione di esseri umani riguarda il fatto che essi sono gli schiavi delle divinità, liberando così gli dei dal lavoro reale del mondo. Gli esseri umani lavorerebbero la terra fornendo cibo e bevande e altre necessità o desideri degli dei attraverso sacrifici e libagioni.

Questa storia mitica, presente nel contesto in cui vennero scritte le storie della creazione biblica, e alcune delle dinamiche proprietario/proprietà dell’Enumah Elish possono essere trovate nel testo biblico, ma questa è una storia della creazione molto diversa, con l’essere umano creato ‘b’ tzelem Elohim’ e il Dio autosufficiente che continua a offrire alimenti a base vegetale per tutti gli esseri appena creati, sia umani che animali.

Questa non è nemmeno l’unica storia della creazione nella Bibbia, e non si può leggere la prima iterazione nel capitolo 1 senza la seconda, la ripetizione nel capitolo 2: la storia del Giardino dell’Eden.

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ:

E l’Eterno Dio prese l’uomo e lo pose nel Giardino di Eden perché lo coltivasse e lo custodisse.

I verbi qui sono abbastanza diversi: שמר עבד, significano letteralmente servire e fare la guardia, proteggere.

Quindi, anche se abbiamo considerato i verbi nel primo capitolo per significare “governare/ sottomettere” la terra, qui nel secondo capitolo quella dimensione è notevolmente mitigata. Il ruolo dell’essere umano paradigmatico è quello di prendersi cura della terra, servendola piuttosto che sfruttandola.

Qualsiasi potere della proprietà implicito nella prima storia deve ora essere inteso come quello dell’obbligo di nutrire e custodire qualcosa di prezioso per Dio. Lavorare con Dio (piuttosto che per gli dei) significa avere un’autorità e un ruolo nella creazione, non dà il permesso di usare o sfruttare senza cura o considerazione alcuna la terra e il suo futuro.

La tradizione rabbinica lo comprende chiaramente, e ci ricorda che non dobbiamo eccedere i nostri poteri, non dobbiamo prendere egoisticamente e sfruttare e danneggiare per soddisfare i nostri desideri e bisogni, in effetti questo ci riporterebbe al punto di partenza dell’Enumah Elish e gli dei egoisti, avidi, pigri e sconsiderati. Notoriamente nel Midrash Kohelet Rabbà leggiamo:

“Guarda il lavoro di Dio: per chi può raddrizzare ciò che ha distorto? Quando l’Uno, Santo e Benedetto, creò il primo essere umano, Dio lo prese e lo condusse attorno a tutti gli alberi del Giardino dell’Eden e disse: ‘Guarda le mie opere, quanto sono belle e lodevoli! E tutto ciò che ho creato, è stato creato per te. Fai attenzione a non corrompere e distruggere il mio mondo: se lo corrompi, non c’è nessuno che lo ripari dopo di te.’” (Kohelet Rabbà 7:13)

Lette insieme, le due storie della creazione forniscono un quadro del complesso e importante rapporto tra umanità, Dio e natura. Dio, avendo creato il mondo per essere autosufficiente, è ancora coinvolto attraverso il lavoro degli esseri umani. Siamo, come sempre, le mani di Dio nel mondo. Possiamo gestire e prenderci cura del mondo naturale, a volte, come in un giardino, dovendo essere creativi per ottenere i migliori risultati. Ogni giardiniere parlerà dell’importanza della potatura, dello scavo delle erbe infestanti dalle radici, della selezione o del diradamento delle piante, tutte cose che possono sembrare “pesanti” ma alla fine forniscono l’ambiente migliore.

Il nostro ruolo è sottomettere il mondo o spargerci al suo interno, causando fecondità e pienezza della natura? Suggerirei che l’antico mito del nostro essere l’apice della creazione, nel senso che abbiamo il diritto di dominare il mondo, è un malinteso a un livello molto profondo. Siamo stati creati per servire e proteggere la terra, ed è così che incarniamo profondamente l’idea del nostro essere “b’tzelem Elohim”.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

The Launch of Tzelem at the Speaker’s Rooms 28th January 2015

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In the beautiful and opulent surroundings of the State Rooms of the Speaker’s Apartment in Westminster over 60 Rabbis and Cantors from the different Jewish streams in the UK came together to launch a new organisation: Tzelem- the Rabbinic  Voice for Social and Economic Justice in the UK.

Founded on the Jewish principle that we are all created in the image of God (b’tzelem Elohim), Tzelem builds on the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew bible which speaks of the vital importance that social and economic justice is available for everyone.  Jewish tradition has long advocated the rights of the marginal and the powerless, and our teachings are rich in texts calling for us to take part in asserting those rights, and standing up in the face of the powerful in order to achieve them.

It is the purpose of Tzelem to continue this tradition by critiquing the issues at the root of our society that keep the vulnerable and powerless exposed and helpless.  We aim to take action in order to change the structures that maintain the marginality of the weakest in society, and to change the way they are viewed.

Four Rabbis spoke from their own close experience of mental illness, child poverty, homelessness and immigration. It was a sobering experience made even more poignant in the surroundings in which we heard it, to be told that one in four children in Britain do not have adequate nutrition. It was painful to hear stories of the rapidly downward cycle into homelessness that left people without hope for the future, or so ill after exposure to the elements that their whole self fragmented. It was moving to see a colleague speak of his own struggle with bipolar disorder and the depression that accompanied it made all the more difficult because of the fear of stigma, disapproval and rejection.

 Rabbis and Cantors, like other clergy, see every strata of society and this is one of our strengths and one of the reasons we must be a driving force in contributing to a fairer society. Our texts and tradition demands it of us, and so does the lived experience of our role. We see what is often hidden from other members of society – the desperation, the poverty, the lack of hope, the pain and the willingness to ignore the weak and vulnerable in the busyness of life. Tzelem has come like a ray of hope into the worlds of many colleagues. We have watched other faith traditions step forward and demand justice and economic security for all members of our society and we spoke out as individuals each in our own milieu, but the creation of this platform with rabbis and cantors from across the spectrum of observance has given us energy and hope that our voice will be amplified, that together the voice of Judaism and its demands for justice for all will be heard in all the corners of the United Kingdom.

At our launch we reminded ourselves of what our tradition demands of us, and we reminded ourselves of the poverty and the pain that exist within the communities in which we live. We cannot stand by while the pain of our fellow human beings calls out to be addressed and ameliorated. As Hillel wrote two thousand years ago “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself then what am I? And if not now, when? (Avot 1:14)

For more on the texts of the launch and on Tzelem, see http://www.tzelem.uk/#!Launch-Resources/c14bu/7293522D-5710-49E6-BA0A-8E5986FA912A

Parashat Va’era: how do we recognise the appearance of God?

Ever since God made human beings “b’tzelem Elohim” in the image of God, way back when the world was young, the appearance of God has been problematic to say the least.  That old man in the sky, with long white beard and kindly expression began I know not when, but somehow generations of small children expect God to look like that, and I remember the pictures of a long haired, blue eyed Jesus that decorated Junior schools up and down the country in my own youth.  The Blake ‘Creation of Adam’ shows a white and western male God created in the image of the white and western male.

            God made human beings ‘b’tzelem Elohim’, in the divine image. We often seem to attempt to return the compliment by making God b’tzelem Adam – in the human image.

            Think of God, and what image do you conjure up?  Whatever it is, it is going to be a construct of human imagination, so Jewish tradition is adamant that there should be no such thing as a representation of God.  Neither incarnate nor in art; we persist in refusing to even attempt to define God.  Our God is outside of space and time, of the physical rules governing the universe.  Our God exists – that is enough.

            So what appeared to Moses at Horeb when he saw the bush that burned but was not consumed?  What appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob?  How do we understand or even recognise the appearance of God?

            In biblical stories there are Melachim (angels or messengers) and there are Anashim – people.  There are dreams and visions and voices in the night.  Moses sees the theophany in a flame of fire rising out of the midst of a bush. 

            How do we recognise the appearance of God, especially when we are so sure of the existence of God as being outside of all the rules of time and space which would necessarily create appearance?  How do we know when we have encountered the divine, when we meet in dialogue or catch a sudden glimpse of the absolute?  And conversely, how do we prevent ourselves from being like Pharaoh, unable to see the presence of God even when everything in our world is demonstrating it?

            And how do we ensure that the God we encounter is not one made in our own image, as we try to fulfil our need and end our searching?

            There is an upsurge in the searching for spirituality, a need to be more sure of things as the world becomes a more dizzyingly active place, a need to find a safe place in the maelstrom of the early years of a new millennium.  But as we search for the deeper and essential truths to anchor us, we often look too hard to find them, become too narrow in our scope.  The appearance of God passes us by unnoticed. 

When Moses saw God at the bush, it would have taken him quite some time to have watched enough to realise that a miraculous event was taking place – how long does it take to watch a fire before you realise that it is not consuming its fuel?  Yet often when we search for God, we don’t give ourselves the time to really see what is around us.  Eight times the root for the word to see (ra’ah) is used in the six verses where God first appears to Moses, culminating in God’s declaration “Ra’oh ra’eetee” – I have surely seen. (v7)  By the time God appears to Moses as this sidra opens, the relationship is established, God speaks to Moses and tells him of his appearance to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob quite nonchalantly.  Yet there is something new – in this new relationship (as in all individual relationships with God) there is a particular truth to be revealed – in this case the tetragrammaton, the four lettered name of God. Having surely seen God, Moses has acquired a special knowledge about God – the essential name is made known to him.

            And here lies a clue as to how we recognise the divinity when we meet.  God is beyond our imagination, beyond our ability to construct or to constrain.  In meeting God then we catch just a glimpse of that beyondness, the particular truth that we as individuals could understand will be revealed.  More than a glimpse, and we see the gross detail that reveals the experience to be a product of our own selves.  Less than a glimpse and we can never be sure that the experience was real.  The knowledge of something that we know we could never have thought of on our own is best of all, for the infinite God can be recognised specially by each of us.  As Rabbi Levi wrote (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana) “God appears like a mirror in which many faces can be reflected. A thousand people look at it, it looks at each of them” 

We meet God when we are open to such a meeting, and when we stop trying to fill the space where we think God should be.  And when that space fills with something new and recognizably beyond our own imagining, that is when we glimpse the divine.   

            It is surely time to learn to recognise God in the world around us by learning to look and really see what is around us, rather than by searching for our predetermined expectation of the divine.  And it is time to stop pretending that we have any answers, that we can create god as we can create any artefact or idea.  Much better to open ourselves to the experience, to allow our encounter to emerge as it will.  To do that we have to accept that there are no answers that will satisfy entirely, no reasons that will explain thoroughly, no plan that will make perfect sense.  Each of us, living breathing and sensing human beings, will encounter differently, will learn something new and particular about the creator, will meet God as we are able to do so.