The Book of Bereshit — and the Burning of the Book of Life


As a naturalist who has spent decades sharing nature's wonders, I am trembling in trepidation of our upcoming Torah readings. For me, the juxtaposition between text and reality is just too jarring.

As we cycle back on Simchat Torah to the opening words of Bereshit this Saturday night, the Bible begins with a bang–"let there be light"– and Creation unfolds in a series of stunning passages. And it is all very good.

These days, I revel in that Creation, as birds pour through forests heading south, Monarch butterflies flutter 2,000 miles to Mexico, trees don astonishing coats of many colors, and goldenrods and asters blossom forth, giving honeybees their last drops of nectar. And yet.

We live during a radical unraveling of Creation: we are carelessly lopping limbs off the Tree of Life, fiddling while the Book of Life burns.

As rainforests smolder, coral reefs bleach and die, tundras melt, and land is plowed under, Conservation International estimates that one species — one uniquely crafted life form — vanishes every nine to 44 minutes. While we don't yet know whether five or 50 million species share this global ark, during the time that you read these words, one species will have disappeared.

Three of nine tiger subspecies are gone, as is the Chinese river dolphin, a victim of industrialization.

The last Spix's macaw, a Brazilian beauty, became extinct in 2000. And only two "bois dentelle" trees still grow in Mauritius.

In Hawaii, where imported species have decimated native ecosystems, 16 plants are reduced to one lonely specimen.

In a national park in Borneo, orangutan numbers tumbled 90 percent in the last five years.

One-third of open-ocean sharks are threatened; Atlantic bluefin-tuna populations have plunged 97 percent since 1960, a casualty of our appetite for sushi. Scientists estimate that 25 percent of mammals worldwide will be gone in 30 years.

"All the living creatures of every kind," as Genesis says, from single-celled algae to giant whales, are in freefall, victims of habitat loss, foreign species, pollution, poaching and overfishing, with global warming adding a devastating coup de grace.

Neither God nor humankind can see this as good.

Yet Jews honor and invoke both Creator and Creation.

"Nishmat kol chai," we chant, "the soul of every living being praises You." On Shabbat, we thank God for renewing Creation. Creation in turn exalts its Creator, as in Shoheyn Ad when we sing: "It is the duty of all creatures to laud and glorify you." Psalm 96 declares: "Let the sea and all within it roar praise/Let the trees of the forest break into song."

Surely, we cannot honor Creation by disassembling it, and an empty sea roars no praise. On Yom Kippur, all life paraded before Adonai, who decided the fate of each. Can God really have elected to kill off thousands of species this year?

In only two weeks, Noah will invite all of Creation onto his ark. We have become the anti-Noah, plucking planks from the ark while still expecting it to float. If Noah were alive today, far fewer species would enter, and the ark would sink before the story's end.

"The world is full of wonders and miracles," said the Baal Shem Tov, "but we take our hands, cover our eyes and see nothing."

When we read Bereshit and Noah, I will be trembling, trembling at the beauty of the words and the tragedy of the truth. And when we sing, "It is a Tree of Life for those who hold fast to it," I will quietly renew my vow to hold fast.

There is so much we can do to forestall the unraveling of life's web. But the first step is to uncover our eyes and simply see, and take one of Moses' last words as a new command: Choose life.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Lower Merion Conservancy, a community preservation group. He blogs at:


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