Friday, October 5, 2018 /26 Tishrei, 5778
Parashat B’reisheet Genesis 1:1-6:8
Are the animals upon the earth truly here simply for our dominion and use?
For generations, it surely appeared that way. We were hunters and gatherers, we cut trees as needed for shelter and fuel, and we hunted buffalo for skins and meat. Our relationship with the world around us was purely utilitarian.
Of course, today, with global warming, that bird has come home to roost, and we see the results of our human usurpation of the earth’s living resources.
Interestingly, this absolute usage of animals, and perhaps, plants, seems to be sanctioned in Torah. We read in Genesis, chapter 2, that God looked for a helpmate for Adam, and crafted each animal and brought it to Adam, who assigned it a name. Though none of them was found emotionally satisfying to Adam, and thus Eve was created, according to the mythic story, Adam still was charged with giving titles to the other creatures.
To this end, the Midrash, as recounted in the commentary of Rashi, our medieval Torah sage, states, “God brought them to Adam to give them names. In the words of the Midrash, this creation of the animals has the connotation of subjugation and dominion, for he subjugated them through the power of Adam.
This is uncomfortable to me. I understand that we humans have been naming the animals – with common and Latin names – since well before Darwin and Lamarck, but that was for classification purposes to know species, genus and phylum. It was not for the purpose of subjugation.
Yet, subjugation has resulted. Just ask the passenger pigeon and the California golden bear (both extinct in the 20th century). This may be the law of unintended consequences – one seemingly benign action begets another, which is unintentionally harmful. Naming the animals gave us the right to use, and abuse them. Control allowed domination, whereas perhaps control was intended to engender stewardship.
For us, we cannot unscramble the omelet, and regenerate the thousands of animals which have become extinct during the human period. But, the example can urge us to reconsider consequences of our actions.
Even Rashi intuited this a millennium ago.
Rabbi Doug Kohn