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The Natural World Threatened by Human Destruction

Tikkun Olam as ecological stewardship: Humility is called for in response to ecological balance of natural world
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In his career as an educator at SHI, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he taught in Hartman Institute
If you believe it is possible to ruin, then believe it is possible to fix.” -Reb Nahman from Bratslav, 19th century Poland, great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism

Ironically the first Biblical use of the term tikkun insists that the humans are incapable of fixing God’s world.

In Biblical Wisdom literature, such as Ecclesiastes and Job, the meaning of individual human life is sought within the cyclic world of nature created by God. Sometimes it seemed that human labor was futile, for it would all be swept away by time.

Ecclesiastes opens, “Vanity of vanities all is vanity.” (1:2). This might be more colloquially translated as “futility of futilities” or “ephemeral of ephemerals.” Its pessimistic message about the limitation on human planning and control is based on a cyclical understanding of nature that encompasses the social and economic world of human civilization.

It is almost diametrically juxtaposed to the ethos of Genesis, where humans are valued for their divine abilities to rule God’s creation and continue the process of creation of order out of chaos by imposing their will and their forms on raw nature (1:26-28). In Genesis humans are stewards or even co-partners with God, but in Ecclesiastes human power appears as nil against the cosmic order of God. “Consider God’s doing! Who can straighten/fix (l’takein) what God has made crooked (m’uvaat)?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13).

The biblical message may be that human beings cannot hope to change the world God created, even if aspects of the Creation appear “crooked” or unjust. Yet the rabbinic midrash uses this verse to appreciate how well made is the world and to enhance human responsibility to guard the world from being ruined:

When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13)

On the one hand, this midrash raises the value of human life to its heights. The world is created not only for human stewardship but for human enjoyment, as it says in Genesis 1 and 2. On the other hand, the midrash goes on to warn humans that they may end up destroying the beautiful world which God has given them, because Divine creation is vulnerable to human actions. People can only ruin, not repair, what they have made “crooked.” Human repair is not an option, so human restraint and precaution is urgent:

See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it (l’takein).” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13).

Genesis 1 and Ecclesiastes 1 prefigure both modern and postmodern consciousness. Genesis 1 is modern in its celebration of the human power to transform the natural world into a tool for human benefit as mandated by God, while Ecclesiastes sounds post-modern in its ironies about human hubris and its insistence on developing a self-critical awareness of human limits to reason and will. Humility is called for in response to the delicate ecological balance of the natural world.

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