In the fall of 1962 the marine biologist Rachel Carson published her reflections on how modern industrial society was encroaching on nature. Her essay, “Silent Spring,” became the book that launched the modern environmentalist movement. Carson’s genius was in her ability to teach the science of nature through wondrous storytelling. She describes her habit of walking into the woods and listening to the chorus of nature, and when on a particular morning, she noticed its absence:
“On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn choirs of robins, doves, jays, wrens and scores of other bird voices there was no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”
To Carson, the silence of nature itself was a wake-up call. “Where had all the birds gone? Why did they leave?” She set off to explore the causes of nature’s demise, finding that human progress – modernization, mechanization, and civilization – have made us conquerors over nature.
We only need to look out the window to see the world the way Rachel did more than a half-century ago. We have mastered the skies with airplanes, we have tamed the seas with mighty ships, we have spread across the land plowing it for crops, and we have constructed buildings and vast networks of concrete and fiber optics. Back when we all used to fly regularly, you could look out from the window of the airplane and see the checkerboard pattern of greens and browns unfurling across the landscape. The view from 30,000 feet is clear. As the philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote, the word “wilderness” carries no meaning anymore because it describes no place on earth. When I can see any place on earth at any time through my computer, there is no more mystery.
The paradigm of mastery over mystery is what Carson and others believe is the challenge of our exceptionalism. Many look to the Book of Genesis as justification for the unyielding consumption of the earth’s natural resources. A literal interpretation of the verse, “fill the earth and master it,” (Genesis 1:28) ennobles the clearcutting of forests, burning of fossil fuels, destruction of wetlands, all in the name of the divinely ordained ownership over the land.
On the other hand, we can hear the silent protest found in nature by Carson not as a cry of defeat, but a calling of partnership. To use our Divine human partnership not to be masters of the land, but to be its stewards. The basis of this calling is found in this week’s Torah portion, Bereshit. When God created the world, the world was disordered chaos. Then God said, “let there be light” and there was light and God said it was good. (Genesis 1:4) God said, “separate the waters and form dry land” and there was a separation and God pronounced this to be good. (Genesis 1:10) The same goodness was pronounced over each layer of creation from the cosmos to the caterpillar; each time God called out and said, ki tov, it is good.
Some biblical scholars, like Professor Edward Greenstein, believe that the original intent of creation is not for goodness at all. Creation is at best pleasing to the rather arbitrary tastes of God, and whatever is in the world is simply “just is” and certainly not good in the moral sense. This reading of Genesis says God liked what God saw for whatever reason, and God was ready to move onto something more interesting.
The Rabbis, on the other hand, retrieve a much more powerful and meaningful understanding of the Torah. They ask, why would God, all knowing and all powerful Creator in this story, acknowledge something God already knows? Here is the majestic subtlety of the Torah: Beyond being good for doing something for someone else, or simply pleasing to the tastes of the Divine, the world has an intrinsic goodness. Each stone, each drop of water, each leaf, and each living breathing-creature is itself inherently tov – good, capturing, as the mystics believe, a small piece of the Divine within.
The Psalmist crystallizes this truth when he exclaims, “Praise God, sun and moon/ Praise God, all the stars of light…Praise the LORD from the earth…all mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, all wild and tamed beasts, all creeping things and winged birds, all kings, princes, judges and peoples of earth, all maidens and young men, old and young alike. (Psalm 148: 3-4, 7-12).
There is a symphony in the universe that allows for every heart song to connect to the Divine through the rhythms of vibrating electrons, of colliding atoms, of rushing of leaves, and the crashing of oceans. And most importantly the beating of trillions of hearts, the pulsations of life, that in every moment affirms its own sacred existence.
Goodness is not simply delight; it is sacred, unfathomable worth.
The Torah does call for human exceptionalism. Unlike the other six days, in which God merely said tov, or just good, on the day when the Holy One blew life into the lungs of humanity and aroused the very first breath, God looked upon this act of creation and said, tov ma’od, or exceedingly good. (Genesis 1:31) The word ma’od is opaque, it is translated as an intensifier meaning “very, or mightily.” Unlike the creatures of earth, God gives us ma’od – special capacity for intense goodness. God wants us to stretch farther, reach higher and exceed the limitations of our natural instincts. While God gives us the earth to master, God endows us with the precise gift of ma’od to exceed morally and steward the land.
In the following chapter the Torah says that “God planted a garden in Eden and put humanity in the garden “l’ovda u’lshomra, in order to plant it and to protect it.” (Genesis 2:15) We have Divine permission to build homes, to cultivate crops, and earn livings. But we must balance our personal gain with our personal responsibility. We must use our ma’od to become stewards of the garden as much as we are masters of it, for our choices matter.
The purpose of our exceptionalism is not to be a conqueror, but a partner, and to hear the silent song of nature to be its steward. What was given to us in Genesis is returned in Deuteronomy. “You will love the LORD your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might (ma’od).” (Deuteronomy. 6:5) Our might, our ma’od, is our capacity to stretch farther and use our exceptional capacity of creation to steward God’s creation. To teach these values in word and deed to our children. And to cast our relationship to the environment as a spiritual and moral issue. Nature’s silence is a call to partnership, echoing the most ancient of vocations by God to become exceedingly good.