Besiyata diShemaya - with the help of Heaven
We must start at the very beginning. Even before the creation of the skies, the heavens and the earth.
Bereyshit. "In the beginning..." (Genesis 1:1).
The six Hebrew letters making up the opening word of the Bible, BeReYShiT, can be rearranged to spell out the words RoSh BaYiT, "the Head of the House".
Because first in mind -- even before the creation of the actual universe -- there was a vision of a House. Long before humans started building houses for themselves, as God began building worlds, there was already a vision of the ultimate House: the House of God, the Holy Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In the words of Jacob, speaking of this place: "This is the House of God and this is the Gate of Heaven" (Genesis 28:17).
This House is the summit of all creation. The purpose of the entire creation is to reveal the beauty and perfection of God to His creatures. The Temple raises our eyes to that perfection. For the Temple directs our eyes beyond transient worldliness towards heavenly truth. This House comes to join Earth back to Heaven. The Temple is the place where Earth meets Heaven. It is the very Gate of Heaven.
The Holy Temple in Jerusalem comes to show and reveal that the loving God is the Head of the House, RoSh BaYiT, Ruler over the Universe. And that the whole world is a "House" -- a planned, ordered, intelligently-built structure -- in and through which God's divinity is revealed to all the inhabitants of the world.
It was from the earth of this place in Jerusalem that Adam was formed. For it is the destiny of his children -- all humanity -- to worship at this House.
After Noah was saved from the flood, it was in this place that he sacrificed.
This is the mountain where Abraham came to sacrifice Isaac.
This is the "field" to which Isaac returned to meditate.
This is the place where Jacob lay down and dreamed of a ladder stretching up to heaven. This is the place he called "the House of God".
This place King David knew to be the place of the Temple, and he prepared for its construction by King Solomon.
The Solomon's Temple stood there for 410 years until it was destroyed.
The Second Temple stood there for 420 years until it was destroyed.
For more than 1928 years since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews have yearned and prayed daily for the rebuilding of the Temple.
Here on this exact same spot, the Third Temple is destined to be rebuilt.
We are waiting for it. We need it. "If the nations of the world had understood how valuable the Holy Temple was for them they would have surrounded it with troops and fortifications to guard it" (Bemidbar Rabbah 1:3). For only when all mankind will unite to worship God at this Temple will it be possible to join the earth back to heaven. And only then will mankind be able to live in harmony with the environment.
BeReYShiT. That vision of the House was the beginning of creation. And then came the actual creation of all that is required to make it possible to build that House: the heavens and the earth: the sun, the moon, the stars; the land, the sea, the plants and trees, the fish, the birds and animals...
And finally God said: "Let us make man in our form and likeness, and they will rule over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the skies, over the animals and over all the earth and every creature on it."
And God created man in His own likeness. He created them male and female. And God blessed them and said to them: "Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and conquer it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and all the living creatures that swarm over the earth."
And God planted a garden of delight. He caused the earth to sprout forth every kind of lovely tree. And the tree of life in the midst of the garden. And the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
God took Adam and Eve and placed them in this Garden of Eden to tend it and keep it. And God ordered the man: "You may eat freely from every tree in the garden. Except for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. For on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die."
But Adam and Eve ate from the tree....
And God said to Adam: "Because you ate from the tree from which I ordered you not to eat, the ground is cursed for you. You will have to toil in order to eat from it all the days of your life. The earth will bring up thorns and thistles, and you will eat the herb of the field. With the sweat of your face you will eat bread, until you go back to the ground. Because that is where you were taken from: you are dust, and to dust you will return."
And God said: "See, the man has become like one of us to know good and evil. And now, so that he should not put his hand out and also take from the Tree of Life and eat and live for ever...."
God drove man out from the Garden of Eden to tend the earth from which he was taken. And God placed angels and a fiery sword to guard the way to the Tree of Life. (Genesis ch's 1-3).
Where is that enchanted garden? Will we ever see it again? In this world? Or in some other?
In Eden, everything Adam needed was instantly available. All he had to do was pick the fruit off the trees. But having been driven out of Eden, he was forced to fend for himself.
Ever since then, men have writhed and struggled to find easier ways of making a living so as to circumvent the curse and enjoy this world a little before dying and returning to the dust.
One of the things that most distinguishes man from God's other creatures is the intelligence with which he is able to make and use tools and artifacts that can aid him in this goal. Over the millennia, as human technology has become ever more ambitious, so the corresponding forms of economic and social organization have become more and more complex.
No matter how complex the technology and social organization, everything required to sustain human life ultimately derives from the surrounding God-given natural environment. Yet the more advanced our technology and society, the more man-made our surroundings become -- and the more cut-off we seem to be from nature.
For thousands of years the great majority of the population lived on the land, close to nature -- many of them quite literally fulfilling the curse of Adam, toiling and sweating to extract food from the ground. But the ever-accelerating technological revolution of the last few hundred years has caused a corresponding revolution in socioeconomic organization that has totally shifted the focus from the country to the city.
Today's urban agglomerations not only provide homes for their enormous concentrations of population. They also serve as the location for most of the industrial and economic activity that provides the goods and services, the educational infrastructure that produces the manpower and know-how, the communications media that keep everyone informed and involved in the system, and the governmental and other bodies charged with overall coordination and control.
Urbanization is a major global trend. Of the 5.8 billion people currently living on this earth, just over half still live away from cities. But the other half are now urbanized. It is expected that within twenty-five years, two thirds of the world's population may be living in cities. Three quarters of the population of the United States already live in cities.
Our contemporary urban technology-and-media-based civilization transcends traditional geographic, political, racial and cultural boundaries. It has established itself as the dominant civilization throughout the world. Few if any aboriginal or pre-industrial people remain who are not under the rule of some city-based government and subject to modern urban technological and cultural influences. No matter where in the world you are -- even on a desert island, even in outer space -- all you have to do is turn on your radio and you are in instant touch with the latest news, stock prices, fashions, sports, entertainment, books, albums, websites and anything else you want.
The claim of this civilization to world ascendancy is based first and foremost on its amazing capacity to generate wealth. The success of countries and their governments is measured by their ability to ensure this abundance for everyone -- or at least for enough of the population not to let the have-nots get out of hand. Material consumption is a goal that unites people of all nations, races, beliefs and cultures: east, west, north and south.
Contemporary city civilization is a unique solution to Adam's predicament of how to survive and enjoy, providing ever more refined ways of satisfying an infinite array of secondary whims and desires. With a pampered palate, all modern comforts, technology beeping and flashing all around you, entertainment at the press of a button, endless opportunities for shopping, amusement, education, culture, sports and more and more... you could easily imagine this IS paradise!
It is surely a desirable goal to seek to satisfy everyone's basic needs and provide them with as many true comforts and conveniences as possible. Indeed, with wise organization and self-restraint, the whole world could be amply provided for without any danger to the environment.
But our current methods of trying to satisfy the world population's basic needs and sustain the sophisticated lifestyle of the more prosperous are causing the depletion of natural resources and degradation of the global environment at a rate that will make it impossible for humanity to carry on in the same way for more than a generation or two. The danger to the environment is clear to anyone willing to take even a brief glance at some of the information gathered by environmental monitoring agencies.
("Vital Signs" and "State of the World" published by Worldwatch Institute, Washington).
Thousands of years after Adam's expulsion from paradise, mankind is more out of harmony with the environment than ever.
It is an ironic twist to a continuing saga. Adam was expelled from paradise for an act of excess, uncontrolled consumption, eating the extra fruit he was not allowed. And it is the excess, uncontrolled production and consumption habits of his sophisticated present-day descendants that are destroying the very earth we are entrusted to guard.
Quite apart from what contemporary civilization is doing to the physical environment, its effect on the minds and souls of those who live in it are just as devastating if harder to measure.
Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times" graphically portrayed the crushing effects of industrialization on human dignity. That was back in the 1920's -- before people had been subjected to the full intensity of the contemporary city experience: unremitting heavy traffic, constant overhead aircraft, bulldozers, drilling, blaring sirens, alarms, amplifiers, phones, beepers, flashing lights, information overflow....
Contemporary civilization is the most technologically sophisticated and economically prosperous that ever was. Never before have so many people enjoyed such comforts and conveniences. Yet the commonest problems brought today to doctors and psychiatrists are depression, fatigue, hypertension, fear and anxiety!
The incidence of murder, violence, crime, sexual immorality, drug abuse and the like in the world's major cities is appalling. Subtler problems like the hyperactivity, attention-deficit and other behavioral problems so widespread among youth may seem less horrifying. Yet they could be signs of overall mental degeneration in our civilization.
It is hardly surprising that so many people in our culture show signs of wanting to escape. Some travel the globe in search of a different world, one that is more humane and serene. Others try to escape by turning inwards, or by blasting themselves with frenetic music, mind-altering drugs, muscle pumping and other forms of intensity. Among the most persistent themes in many present-day sub-cultures are anger, defiance and nihilism. But the majority seek solace from the pressures of modern life through the compulsive pursuit of material gratification, resulting in the food, sex, shopping, smoking, drinking, gambling and other addictions rife in our societies.
All the resources required to maintain our contemporary consumerist civilization ultimately derive from the natural environment. Yet this selfsame culture tends to foster a myopic lack of awareness of nature that is one of the major factors causing people not only to ignore the continuing destruction of the environment but actively to contribute to it.
Urban living and contemporary technology cut people off from nature physically and mentally. The physical spaces where most of the urban population spend their lives -- houses, apartment blocks, roads, shops, offices, factories, schools, public facilities, cars, buses, trains, planes -- are all man-made. People are surrounded by man-made objects, artifacts and equipment of all kinds.
Even more enveloping are the man-made communications media, which for most of the population are the main source of information about the wider world as well as entertainment and culture. TV's, radios, papers, magazines, promotion and advertising surround us from childhood to old age. We may not be obliged to pay attention to them. But the sophistication with which they capture people's attention make them the determining influence molding the outlook and consciousness of the overwhelming majority of the population.
For many people, watching images on a screen is far more compelling than looking directly at their actual surroundings (which they may in any case find uninteresting or depressing). Audio output from speakers or headphones is far more involving than the real, live sounds all around (which may include a high proportion of meaningless technology-generated noise.) Media hypnosis thus engenders in people a glazed detachment from their own direct experience of the actual world around them through their eyes, ears and other senses, making them all but unaware of the sky, the trees and plants, birds, insects and other living creatures found even in cities.
The scale and economics of the media ensure that they remain the mouthpiece of entrenched interests in a system geared not so much to satisfying people's true needs as to arousing their material appetites. This is what makes the sales that create the profits that oil the system. The implicit message of the promotion that bombards us everywhere is: "You, the consumer, are king. The entire world is a giant smorgasbord of thrilling products, services and opportunities of every kind, all laid on for YOUR pleasure and delight. Just take and enjoy! Don't wait! Have it NOW! Buy! Special offer! Better value! More for less! Free gifts! Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!"
The majority of the population are swept along by the general tide of consumerism, sparing little thought for the collective effect of their own and everyone else's individual acts of excess and waste on the wider global environment.
At least this mindless folly is slightly more forgivable than the frantic pollution of the environment and destruction of irreplaceable resources perpetrated by profit-hungry businessmen, major corporations and indeed some of the very governments that talk about the need for greater public awareness and stricter controls.
A civilization hell-bent on a lifestyle that is environmentally unsustainable and destructive is sick.
We must therefore thank God that more and more sensitive, thoughtful and responsible people are profoundly disturbed and pained at the spectacle of contemporary man destroying himself and the world, and are asking what we should do about it.
Perhaps there are animals that eat their fill and then move on leaving a trail of filth and waste behind them. But man has a higher destiny. We are the recipients of God's special blessing: "Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and conquer it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and all the living creatures that swarm over the earth."
"Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and conquer it." God wants a large human population, for such a multitude of souls -- each one different, each unique -- attests to the glory of the Creator. But only if the population is made up of truly dignified, refined human beings who not only take from the world and consume but also give. Man's mission is to conquer his selfish, animal instincts so as to develop his innate divinity and serve -- give and contribute of himself in order to bring this world to perfection and turn it back into the beautiful, harmonious garden it was created to be.
"Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and all the living creatures that swarm over the earth." The blessing applies to all of Adam's descendants. It applies to us. We are the guardians of the Earth and all the different life-forms and species it contains.
As we witness the destruction of the environment and see thousands of species of plants and animals becoming extinct, we must ask ourselves: How are we fulfilling our role? How are we discharging our responsibility?
One could easily be discouraged from even starting to think about what to do to improve the world. The odds against succeeding seem so great. True, more and more people are waking up to the responsibility we bear. But we are numerically few compared to the great majority of the world population who don't seem to care at all. What power do we have against the massive forces that are destroying the world? How can we have any significant effect?
Yet we are not at liberty to cast off our responsibility. The Talmud teaches: "Every single person is a whole unique world. And therefore every person is obliged to say, The entire world was created only for me" (Sanhedrin 37a). "If so," said Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, "then it is up to me to consider carefully at all times what I must do in order to improve the world..." (Likutey Moharan Pt I, 5:1).
The way we discharge our responsibility will determine the kind of world we will live in when we are older and the kind of world we will leave to our children and children's children.
Experts are crying out about the destruction of the environment. Pressure groups lobby. International organizations pass resolutions. Governments introduce legislation. Corporations speak piously about their commitment to the environment. Yet the practical measures being taken have hardly begun to turn the tide of abuse and destruction.
Why should this be? If we are so sophisticated and intelligent, why are we unable to solve our problems?
Could it be because the problems are caused by our very intelligence itself, which has outstripped our ability to control and direct it for good and not evil?
It is not our technology that is bringing us to grief so much as the shortsightedness and greed with which it is applied. Man has created a formidable technological and socio-economic apparatus to satisfy his needs. But so far he has not had the sense to keep it under the proper control in order not to destroy himself and the world in the process.
It is an old, old problem. It goes right back to Adam, who through a failure of self-control ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge and was driven out of paradise.
It was because Adam took the fruit for himself against God's command that he was cursed with having to go out into the world and fend for himself.
"You want to be so clever? You don't want to submit to a higher wisdom that says thus far but no further? Then go out and learn for yourself! Try to do everything by yourself. Rely only on your own human intelligence. Make all the mistakes you want. Until in the end you will come to grief. And then you will realize that, wise as you are, you are still not wise enough to work everything out by yourself....
"The whole world is a gift to you. But it comes with God's book of instructions. Without them, nothing will work properly. Go back and do things the way God advises -- and then you will see that everything will work out!"
If we truly desire to discharge our responsibility for the world, we have an obligation to search out what God advises for its welfare, as prescribed in His teaching to mankind, the Torah.
However, we should not expect to find there a point-by-point scheme for saving the environment along the lines of some human-devised plan. For the issue is not merely how to stave off the destruction of the environment for just that little bit longer so that humanity can simply continue pursuing exactly the same materialistic aims as today with only a modicum of extra prudence.
Man's materialistic preoccupations keep him from his true destiny. The Torah therefore comes to wean us from them, leading us on a higher, spiritual pathway where the question is not "What can I get out of the world for myself?" but "What are my obligations? How can I contribute? What can I give?"
As more and more people cultivate an attitude of responsibility and giving instead of only grabbing and taking, it will automatically become easier to introduce the economic and social changes necessary to preserve the environment and ensure long-term human survival.
By talking to each other about such an attitude and encouraging as many people as we have the power to influence to adopt it, we are contributing to and strengthening a new current that is already spreading more and more widely, and has the power to bring the entire world to greater sanity.
Let us therefore put the question of environmental responsibility in a broader perspective by asking: What does the Torah teach about how mankind should relate to the God-given world of nature that provides the grand setting for our civilization as a whole and for the lives of every one of us in it?
How does the Torah teach us to relate to nature?
The only way we can gain a proper perspective on this vital question from our standpoint within an ailing civilization is by endeavoring to step outside.
Let us therefore turn for insight to a band of teachers very different from the urbane experts and specialists of today. They were sky-gazers, meditators, daveners, dreamers, story-tellers, singers, sages, saints, mystics, prophets, founding fathers and leaders of humanity. Some may be famous and familiar from history and literature. Yet however much we know about them, we really do not know them at all.
The extensive Torah library provides a rich treasury of teachings about nature from many different saints and sages from Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic times until today. We will draw from very many of them, and especially from the Master Sage, Rebbe Nachman, who is the soul breathing life into this whole excursion. Rebbe Nachman will be close by during the whole journey from beginning to end.
But the journey will be a long one if we are to cover the ground thoroughly. We will have to take it in stages. There will be four main stages of this journey, and in each one we will look for special insight to one leading guide. Of the four main guides, three are the three founding fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, while the fourth is David, Sweet Singer of Israel.
The common tie binding them together is that all four sought to rectify the sin that drove Adam out of the Garden. In order to restore harmony between man and God, between Earth and Heaven. Only this way can man live in harmony with the world around him. Only this way can mankind survive. Only this way can we get back into the Garden.
All four knew that the success of the entire venture ultimately depends upon one thing: the actualization of the House that was the first thought of the entire creation, "In the beginning" -- BeReYShiT -- RoSh BaYiT, the "Head House": a single place of worship to which all of mankind will turn in unity.
Said Rabbi Elazar: What does Isaiah mean when he says, "And many peoples will go and say, 'Come let us go up to the Mountain of God to the House of the God of Jacob!'" ? Why the God of Jacob and not the God of Abraham and Isaac? The answer is: Not like Abraham, who saw it as a Mountain ("as it is said this day, On the Mountain HaVaYaH is seen" -- Genesis 22:14). And not like Isaac, for whom it was a Field ("And Isaac went out to meditate in the Field" -- Genesis 24:63). But like Jacob, who called it a House: "And he called the name of that place Beth El, the House of God" (Genesis 28:19).
It was to this focus of worship for all mankind that Abraham aspired when he journeyed to the mountain to sacrifice Isaac. Only for Abraham, it was and remained a mountain -- a high, forbidding place out of the reach of most people.
Having been bound at that spot, Isaac went back there again and again to meditate, pray and plan for the realization of the dream. Isaac made it a habit. He brought it nearer. For Isaac it was a field, a place in which to labor and work towards the vision. Fields are more useful to most people than mountains. The concept of a field is one people can more easily grasp than that of a mountain.
Yet a field is still not a place of human habitation to the same extent that a house is. Everybody needs a house to live in. Everyone can understand the idea of a house.
It was as a House that Jacob conceived the Temple: a House of Prayer. And it is as a House of Prayer that it will become graspable and meaningful to all humanity.
"I will bring them to My holy Mountain and make them rejoice in My House of Prayer. Their sacrifices and peace-offerings will find favor on My altar. For My House will be called the House of Prayer for all the nations" (Isaiah 56,7).
David's messianic mission was to spread the teaching of prayer to all mankind. Thus it was Jacob's concept of a House that David sought to actualize and build in his city of Jerusalem.
And it is this House that will be built quickly in the near future when Mashiach, son of David, leads the building of the third, final, eternal House, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And then all mankind will unite in the service of God and the world will come to perfection.
The progression from the concept of an entirely natural Mountain to that of a human-cultivated Field and finally that of a totally man-constructed House corresponds to mankind's progression from the time Adam first stepped out into the unspoiled God-given world of nature through thousands of years of agrarian living to the super-sophisticated man-constructed scientific-technological-urban civilization we live in today.
The Mountain is symbolic of the raw, God-given, natural environment. The Field represents the primary place of interaction between man and his environment: man has to dig, sow and manipulate the Earth in other ways in order to exploit the God-given resources so as to feed himself and provide his other needs.
But when it comes to actually eating, drinking, resting, relaxing and enjoying, people's first choice is the "House" -- whether their own homes or the other man-made buildings and structures in which we go about our various daily activities.
Men have built houses and more houses and more houses... until the Earth is filling up with bigger and bigger cities, the urban agglomerations that constitute the main centers of contemporary civilization.
The paradox is that this man-made civilization is now destroying the natural environment that is the very basis of its life. This is a civilization that is out of harmony with the environment.
Only through the sacred House that Jacob saw and the Son of David will build soon in Jerusalem, the Holy City, will it become possible to make peace and restore harmony between man and his human-constructed, technology-based, house-centered, citified world on the one hand, and the surrounding God-created, God-given world of nature on the other.
May this House be built quickly in our time. Amen.
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