In The Story of Noah: A Modern Midrash, authors Barak Gale and Mark Jacobs, of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, give us a twist on the Biblical story. In their version, Noah had nearly all living things aboard the ark and was ready for the flood. The lower decks were dark and damp and supported life from the many caves in the land, as well as the plants and creatures found in the world’s great rainforests.
The upper decks supported life from the grasslands, the wetlands, and the forests. Noah understood the importance of the grasses for domestic animals as well as for the wildlife. And he knew the birds nourished themselves in the wetlands, and the importance of forests as shelter for many creatures. Noah greatly admired the ancient redwood trees and the gnarled oaks and olive trees.
Noah thought he had done pretty well in gathering male and female birds, cattle, wild creatures, and the creeping things of the earth. Yet surely the Creator did not require every creeping thing of its kind to be saved. Noah was exhausted and exasperated. He turned to God and said, “Enough already! My body aches, my hands are blistered, my knees are bloody – all from building this gigantic ark and searching for all the creatures that reside in every damp corner and atop every high place on earth.
Please, God, can’t we leave the schmutz out the ark?
And God, striving to remain patient with God’s dutiful servant, replied, “There is no schmutz in my creation, Noah.”
This modern midrash is meant to remind us of the importance of every part of God’s creation. In looking at the creation story itself, along with texts of Psalms and Job, we see that God takes care of, and takes pleasure in, the variety of life that makes up creation.
Our ancient Rabbis taught: Even those things that you may regard as completely superfluous to creation – such as fleas, gnats and flies – even they were included in creation; and God’s purpose is carried through everything – even through a snake, a scorpion, a gnat, a frog.”
As hard as it may be for humans to believe, every species has its own inherent value, a value beyond its usefulness to people. Thus, Judaism requires, at a minimum, that we treat all other creatures – both animal and vegetation – with basic kindness. We read in Genesis, “The Eternal God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, l’vadah ul’shamrah, to till it and tend it”  – that is, to take care of it.
Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah, the day we celebrate by saying hayom harat olam – this is the day on which the earth was born. It is the ideal time for us to consider the magnitude of that birth and all of its creation, and our relationship to it.
Let’s begin with an admission: As far as species go, Judaism is human-centric. We are the only ones of God’s creation who were created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image. We are to take care of the rest of creation, not the other way around. And yet, we see nature imagery for God in the Hebrew Bible. In Exodus, God says to the Israelites, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.” In the Psalms, we read, “O Eternal, my crag, my fortress, … my God, my rock in whom I seek refuge… .” If we are created in God’s image, and God can be seen as an eagle or a rock, are we not therefore, too, part eagle and part rock? Maybe that is a bit of a stretch – but it begs us to acknowledge that we are all a part of one creation and are all interconnected.
While the Torah is human-centered regarding species, it remains God-centered in its essence. And one basic teaching of the creation story is that we may be the caretakers of the earth, but God remains the absolute owner.
We read, again in the Psalms, “The earth is the Eternal’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants. We do not have unrestricted freedom to misuse God’s creation, as it does not belong to us. One particular verse in Torah has led to the Jewish law bal tashchit – the prohibition against wasting or destroying – any part of creation. It reads:
“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?”
About this text, Rabbi Lawrence Troster writes, “When we consume in a wasteful manner, we damage creation and violate our mandate to use creation only for our legitimate benefit. Modesty in consumption is a value that Jews have held for centuries. We are obligated when we have a simchah, a celebration, to consider whether we need to have elaborate meals and wasteful decorations. We are obligated to consider our energy use and the sources from which it comes.”
A popular medieval work on piety asserts that a righteous person grieves when even a single mustard seed is wasted.
One extreme consequence of wasting or destroying is the extinction of a species. Again, Torah is our teacher. In Deuteronomy, we read: “If along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over [them], do not take the mother with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young.” And in Leviticus, we see: You shall not kill [the mother] and its young both in one day.”
The Biblical commentator Nachmanides wrote about these verses: “The reason for both is [twofold. First,] that we should not have a cruel heart and not be kind. [Second], Scripture does not permit us to destroy a species altogether…. The person who kills the mother and the young in one day or takes them when they are free to fly, [is regarded] as if they have destroyed that species.”
The flip side of destroying a species is ensuring its longevity. A wonderful story about the first century sage Honi the Circle Maker (yes, that was his full name), demonstrates this obligation.
Honi was walking along a road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” the man replied. Honi then asked, “Are you so healthy that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered, “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.” Our tradition values this concept so much that the Rabbis teach that if you are planting a tree and the messiah comes, finish planting the tree before going to greet him – or her.
Bal tashchit, not wasting, is only one prohibition we find in Jewish law. We are also barred from tza’ar ba’alei chayim, cruelty toward animals. Josephus, the first century Roman-Jewish historian wrote:
“Herod got together many wild beasts and many lions, and other beasts of uncommon strength or that were rarely seen. They were trained either to fight one with another, or with men who were condemned to death. Foreigners were delighted at the vast expenses of the shows, and at the great danger of the spectacles, but to the Jews it was a palpable breaking up of those customs [of kindness to animals] for which they had so great a veneration.”
Josephus’ description of the Jews goes back to Biblical times.
As we look through the Bible, it’s clear that the people who are kind to animals are heroes, while those who would kill animals for sport are not. In one midrash, God says: King David was tested through tending sheep, and found to be a good shepherd. He would restrain the larger sheep for the sake of the small ones. First, he would let the small ones graze on the soft grass, and then let the old sheep graze on the grass that was more difficult to chew, leaving the tough grass for the young bucks. He led them to the wilderness, in order to distance them from theft. Therefore, God told him, “You have proven yourself to be faithful with sheep. Now go and shepherd My flock [Israel].”…
So too, God chose Moses through [his treatment] of sheep. Our Sages said: When Moses was herding the flocks of Jethro in the wilderness, one of them ran away. He pursued it until he found a rocky ledge. After discovering the ledge, he came upon a stream of water beside which the lost sheep stood drinking. He said, “I didn’t know that you ran away because of thirst. You must be tired.” So he carried it back on his shoulders. God declared, “You have shown compassion in tending the flock belonging to mortal man. Thus shall you tend My flock [Israel].” 
Similarly, we are told, Rebecca was the right woman to be the wife of Isaac because of her kindness to animals. When Abraham’s servant asked for water for himself, she volunteered to water his many camels as well, thereby proving herself worthy.
On the other hand, those who cause pain to animals – even sages – are punished. In the Talmud, we read the story of the great Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the author of the Mishnah, who suffered years of kidney stones because he was insensitive to the fear of a calf being led to slaughter; he was relieved of his medical condition years later only after he showed kindness to animals.
Our obligation to care for the rest of creation takes on other forms. The Talmud includes laws regarding pollution. The Rabbis stopped the use of olive wood and grape vines on the Temple altar because they burned with a great deal of smoke and caused air pollution.
Torah also requires that we have open spaces around the cites.” The Talmud adds that the outer area must be used as a park. Residents may plant trees, but may not construct anything; it is to remain an open land. Nor may the open space be made into a field, as that would destroy its beauty.
For 3,500 years, Judaism has been concerned with the entirety of creation. At the start of my sermon, I asserted the interconnectedness of creation. On that very topic, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, wrote:
“Everything is full of riches and greatness, everything aspires to ascend, to be purified and elevated. Everything recites a song, offers praise, magnifies, exalts; everything builds, serves, perfects, elevates, aspires to unite and to be integrated. When we contemplate the physical creation as a whole, we realize that it is all one organism, that the parts are linked in varying gradations to each other. We see this in every … living being.”
One of our traditional morning prayers begins with the words, Nishmat kol chai, t’vareich et shimcha adonai eloheinu, v’ru-ach kol basar t’fa-eir utromeim zichr’cha malkeinu tamid, “The soul of every living being shall bless Your Name, Adonai our God, the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our Sovereign.”
The modern poet, Marge Piercy, has written this contemporary version of Nishmat Kol Chai, celebrating humans’ relationship with the soul of every living being and the spirit of all flesh.
When the night slides under with the last dimming star
and the red sky lightens between the trees,
and the heron glides tipping heavy wings in the river,
when crows stir and cry out their harsh joy,
and swift creatures of the night run toward their burrows,
and the deer raises her head and sniffs the freshening air,
and the shadows grow more distinct and then shorten,
then we rise into the day still clean as new snow.
The cat washes its paw and greets the day with gratitude.
Leviathan salutes breaching with a column of steam.
The hawk turning in the sky cries out a prayer like a knife.
We must wonder at the sky now thin as a speckled eggshell
that now piles up its boulders of storm to crash down,
that now hangs a furry grey belly into the street.
Every day we find a new sky and new earth
which we are trusted with like a perfect toy.
We are given us the salty river of our blood
winding through us, to remember the sea and our
kindred under the waves, the hot pulsing that knocks
in our throats to consider our cousins in the grass
and the trees, all bright scattered rivulets of life.
We are given the wind within us, the breath
to shape into words that steal time, that touch
like hands and pierce like knives, that waken
truth and deceit, sorrow and pity and joy,
that waste precious air in complaints, in lies,
in floating traps for power on the dirty air.
Yet holy breath still stretches our lungs to sing.
We are given the body, that momentary kibbutz
of elements that have belonged to frog and polar
bear, corn and oak trees, volcano and glacier.
We are lent for a time these minerals in water
and a morning everyday, a morning to wake up,
rejoice and praise life in our spines, our throats,
our knees, our genitals, our brains, our tongues.
We stand in the midst of the burning world
primed to burn with love and justice and compassion,
to turn inward and find holy fire at the core,
to turn outward and see the world that is all
of flesh with us, to see under the trash, through
the smog, the furry bee in the apple blossom,
the trout leaping, the candles our ancestors lit for us.
Fill us as the tide rustles into the reeds in the marsh.
Fill us as the rushing water overflows the pitcher.
Fill us as light fills a room with its dancing.
Let silence still us so you may show us Your shining
and we can, out of that stillness, rise and praise.
As we celebrate the earth’s creation and contemplate our relationship to all other beings, let us remember our human responsibility, asserted in this midrash: “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. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’” Shanah tovah.
Psalm 104, 148, and Job 38-41
Genesis Rabbah 10:7
Ten Teachings on Judaism and the Environment, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-lawrence-troster/10-teachings-on-judaism-a_b_844973.html
Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31b
Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31b
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews
Shemot Rabba 2:2
Baba Metzia 85a
Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13