Parashat Bereshit

The Stewardship Paradigm

Humanity's dominion over the earth must be for the sake of the Divine.

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Few texts have had a deeper influence on Western civilization than the first chapter of Genesis, with its momentous vision of the universe coming into being as the work of God. Set against the grandeur of the narrative, what stands out is the smallness yet uniqueness of humans, vulnerable but also undeniably set apart from all other beings. The words of the Psalmist echo the wonder and humility that the primordial couple must have felt as they beheld the splendor of creation: 

"When I consider your heavens,

The work of your fingers,

The moon and the stars,

Which you have set in place.

What is humanity that you are mindful of it,

The children of mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them little lower than the angels

And crowned them with glory and honor." (Psalm 8:3-5)

The honor and glory that crowns the human race is possession of the earth, which is granted as the culmination of God's creative work: "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it." This notion is fortified in Psalm 115: "The heavens are the Lord's heavens, but the earth God has given to humanity." While the creation narrative clearly establishes God as Master of the Universe, it is the human being who is appointed master of the earth.

The world, creation

Grappling with the challenging notion of humans as divinely-ordained owners and subduers of the earth, we come face to face with the fundamental questions of our place in the universe and our responsibility for it. A literal interpretation suggests a world in which people cut down forests, slaughter animals, and dump waste into the seas at their leisure, much like we see in our world today.

On the other hand, as Rav Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, writes, any intelligent person should know that Genesis 1:28, "does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to fulfill his personal whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart." Could God have really created such a complex and magnificent world solely for the caprice of humans?

A Second Narrative

Genesis chapter 1 is only one side of the complex biblical equation. It is balanced by the narrative of Genesis chapter 2, which features a second Creation narrative that focuses on humans and their place in the Garden of Eden. The first person is set in the Garden "to work it and take care of it."

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Dr. Jonathan Sacks is the Chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth and the author of A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion. The British Chief Rabbi's office maintains a website: chiefrabbi.org.