[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Nina Beth Cardin
This much is uncontestable: sustainability is a bedrock concept, even if it is wrapped in a milquetoast term. Without a doubt, life depends on sustainability. We have known this for millennia: “Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it” (Genesis 1).
Bearing; fruit; seed. There can hardly be a set of more jam-packed verses on fertility and sustainability in the whole Bible. And for good reason. Without it the world would have stalled the moment God stopped speaking. Without seed and procreation (day three, part two; Genesis 1:11-12), and the environment in which to grow and thrive (day three, part one; Genesis 1:9-10) the world is sterile, static, stagnant and ultimately dead. A vibrant creation needs the means and the environment to reproduce itself. So it has been from the beginning of time; so it remains today.
But if sustainability is the necessary grounds upon which we must build our lives why is it so hard to “sell”? To many, it seems about as enticing, and as force-fed, as cod liver oil. While the reasons for this attitude are no doubt complicated, I would argue that one main reason is our alienation from and subsequent commodification of nature. Food comes from food stores and shoes come from shoe stores, light comes from a switch. The connection between all that we eat, purchase, use and their sources has been severed. Our primary relationship to nature is as consumers. Even when we go places to view radiant sunsets and camp in the cool of the mountains and see soaring vistas, we do this as consumers (grateful ones but consumers nonetheless) of the commodity of nature.
Yet, simply reminding the human race that all life, all things, all breath, all consciousness hinges and hangs upon the stuff of a healthy earth, and that earth is a living entity with needs of its own, is not sufficient. Knowledge might awaken and alert us to reality, but it often fails to move us to act. We must work to re-enchant our experience of nature, to fall in love with and celebrate nature again. To create a sustainable society we must become individuals who don’t just accept and abide by the limits of nature but celebrate and thrive in the ways of creation.
This should be Judaism’s contribution to the world’s move toward sustainability. Despite the classic Jewish fear that the exultation of nature will be confused with the adoration of the Creator, Judaism celebrates nature as a potent partner in our sacred earthly enterprise.
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12).
“Then Judah became His sanctuary, Israel His dominion.
The sea saw and fled, the Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like young sheep” (Psalm 114).
“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land” (Leviticus 26).
And of course there is the author of Job, that magisterial booster of nature’s awesomeness who could barely confine his paean of nature (and God) to six chapters to express the grandeur of the created world and the humble place of humankind in it:
Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of the one whose knowledge is perfect, you whose garments are hot when the earth is still because of the south wind? Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a molten mirror? (Job 37:16-18).
There is no end to the soaring poetry of nature in this book; the verses and chapters just keep tumbling out.
True, we are eons ahead of the author of Job in our understanding of the universe’s secrets. We can peer into the soul of the atom and map the vastness of space. But we do not grasp the force of gravity nor begin to know the cradle of the Big Bang. Being and Life are still mysteries. And awesome. It is a desecration to become too casual with nature, too bold, too pushy, and too confident.
If nature were re-enchanted, as it deserves to be, we would be more inclined to treat it differently. We could not blithely gouge the ores out of the earth or decapitate its mountains or topple its forests if we are captivated by nature’s aged grandeur and humbled before the millions of years that contributed to its substance, the stuff we now call “resources,” the stuff of our lives.
To become captivated, we must know the earth, not just the theory of it, and not just the disassembled elements of it, not just through nature specials on TV or in pots in our homes, but also through the particularity that greets us when we walk out our doors each morning. We must track its ebb and flow through the seasons; know it as a personality in our lives and not just a medium to get through from home to office.
A friend of mine once told me about the discipline of “sit spot,” a quiet place where you sit for 15 minutes a day, every day if possible, and see the details of the constant but changing world around you. It is similar to the artist’s discipline of sketching the same still-life object 100 times. After drudging through the surface sameness the first dozen times, you break through to the discovery of minutiae that surprise and delight. The familiar becomes reassuring instead of boring, and the new is awakening.
That is what our blessings help us do. They are our ritualized “sit spots.” We don’t recite ha-motzi – the blessing over bread – over the idea of food. We recite it upon holding – and immediately consuming – this particular bit of food at this particular time. We don’t recite a blessing for trees upon the thought of fruit trees but upon seeing the blossoming of that first tree on that morning walk on that day in the spring. It is in gaining this sense of intimacy through particularity that nature regains its enchantment. When it does, it becomes precious to us once again. And protected. “We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love” (Wendell Berry, “Life is a Miracle”).
To live knowing the world as a gift in its wholeness and singularities is to live knowingly in a world of beneficence. To live in the presence of such beneficence should lead to an attitude and state of gratefulness. And an attitude of gratefulness should lead us to handle the gift well. For while we are today’s beneficiaries, there are others with identical claims yet to come. We cannot claim primacy, or worse, exclusivity of use, which our culture of consumption erroneously and dangerously fosters.
“Honesty demands the recognition that no matter how ingenious and powerful we become, we live, if we live at all, at the mercy of a creative life spirit. Agribusiness, on the other hand, [and we can add any industry that treats earth’s gifts as consumable and disposable commodities without restraint] and as British agrarian Sir Albert Howard observed, lives by the principle of banditry: ‘The using up of fertility is a transfer of past capital and of future possibilities to enrich a dishonest present: it is banditry pure and simple’” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, 75).
Judaism, like all religion, dwells in the realm of the spirit, which is where the solution to sustainability lies. But Judaism builds the spiritual on the foundation of the material. Through our judicious and intentional use of our blessings, based on actions in the material world and through our attention to our particular slice of nature as a proxy for the whole, we can offer a re-enchanted vision of nature to the world. And bring back the desire to care for and protect it.
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin lives in the Chesapeake Watershed and works as a sustainability activist and advisor in the Jewish and interfaith communities.