The Splendor of Creation, a Biblical Ecology (excerpts) by Ellen Bernstein
Ellen Bernstein founded Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth, the first national Jewish environmental organization in 1988 and is author of Ecology& the Jewish Spirit, The Splendor of Creation: A Biblical Ecology and Let the Earth Teach You Torah. Used by permission of the author. For more information about Ellen Bernstein’s work, visit www.ellenbernstein.org The Splendor of Creation: A Biblical Ecology can be purchased at Amazon or through Pilgrim Press.
Chapter One: Light - the First Day
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
The earth was desolate and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep
and the breath of God hovered over the surface of the water.
And God said, "Let there be light;" and there was light.
And God saw the light was good, and God made a division
between the light and the darkness.
And God called the light: "Day!" and God called the darkness: "Night!"
And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. (I.1)
Be-raishit bara Elohim et ha-shamayim ve-et ha-aretz.
The idea that a God exists who created heaven and earth is truly unfathomable. It means that the earth that we walk upon, the air that we breathe, the food that we eat, are all signs that the world is filled with Mystery. Those who cherish this idea sense that everything they encounter is sacred. Nurture this idea, and it will guide the choices you make and the way you live your life.
For most of us, the idea that our land, waters, and air are manifestations of the Sacred has disappeared from our mental vocabulary. We point to it in other cultures—Native American and Buddhist—but we have forgotten that it exists in our own biblical tradition.
Many of us have lost this idea, in part, because we’re estranged from nature. We think of nature as inert stuff without any life of its own; we approach it merely as a tool to achieve human ends. In a world in which we are divided from nature, in which we recognize nature for its economic value only, land becomes "real estate" and trees "timber." It is no wonder we have become oblivious to the sacredness of the world.
Many years ago, I realized that God was the overlooked dimension of the environmental equation. As a forever-in-the-woods tomboy, who found adventures or solace in nature, I believed that all of nature had a purpose and that all creatures had value whether or not I could know that value. My experiences in wilderness often overwhelmed me with feelings of grandeur and mystery. A random universe made no sense for me, given the extraordinary beauty of the world. If all these creatures belonged here and had distinct purpose, there must be a Creator.
As I grew older I nurtured my interests in nature through studies in biology and ecology. But the deeper I delved, the more I realized that science approached environment as a problem to solve rather than a Mystery to revere. If I wanted to experience the Mystery of Nature, I would have to make room for the Mystery inside myself. I began, with some trepidation, to explore the possibility of living with God in my life.
My seeking initially took place in my mind. I liked the idea that a spiritual life, a God-centered life, could provide the antidote to the "me-centeredness" and the consumer orientation that define our culture and threaten our environment. While the primary goal of an American life is to make money to buy "things," the primary goal of a spiritual life is to make time for no-"thing," for that which money can’t buy: for God, for mystery, conversation, ideas, passion, nature, soul. While the deafening voice of the market place drives us to get rich, get smart, get beautiful, advance, achieve, buy, the still small voice of a spiritual life delights in long walks in the woods, regular periods of silence, and hearty meals with friends. Adopting a spiritual life, a God-centered life could be the most difficult and radical step one could take towards creating more ecologically sustainable world.
A God-centered life is not about leaving the world and nature. Quite the contrary. It means finding ways to engage in life and nature more deeply, with all of the senses. We have been trained to read the world with our heads only, as if our bodies, hearts, and senses had nothing to do with it. In the process we split our minds from our bodies and our bodies from the world, and we lose touch with a whole domain of sensual and intuitive knowledge. Even the word "environment" is so intellectual, removed from the textures, smells, and colors of the living world; abstracted from its beauty. A God-centered life is a fitting response to a world that devalues nature itself, while it overvalues the "things" we take from nature.
Seeking God became for me the ultimate ecological expression. But it is one thing to accept the idea of God in my mind, and quite another to let the presence of God penetrate my being, take root in my body and inform my feelings and behaviors—for God to be alive in my heart.
If I could actually live this reality, that God created heaven and earth, then my life would be enriched with the miraculousness of everything. I would know deeply that the world is founded in generosity and love. I would give more than I would take; I would be more compassionate, less judgmental, more aware that all of my actions, even all of my thoughts, have repercussions in the mysterious round of life.
And if all people could remember this and act on their awareness, then I imagine we would finally learn how to care for the world.
If God exists in everything and everyone, if the world and everything it holds is sacred, then we have no choice but to find and lift up the godly sparks in all of life. According to the Jewish mystics when the world was created, God poured light into the original unformed mass, forming ten etheric vessels. But the vessels were not strong enough to contain the light and they shattered, leaving the shards of the vessels embedded in the matter of the world. It is our task, in the language of the Jewish mystics, to retrieve the shards of the holy vessels and put the pieces back together again.
Nothing could be more difficult, really, than taking God seriously. If we were to accept the presence of God in our lives, we would move more slowly, eat more slowly, take time for loving each other, and act with curiosity and sensitivity to all things. We would treat the whole world as a gift.
Genesis I.1 tells us this. The whole world is holy because God created it and is alive within it. It is an idea that is so powerful, that if we are open to it, it can lead us to an ecological vision and guide us toward ecological lives. It lays the foundation for a deep environmental ethic, a Creation ethic.
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