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Baumel Joseph: Misusing our dominion over nature

Clouds in the sky

When I first arrived in Montreal, I found it odd that Canadians constantly spoke about the weather. It seemed to dominate their conversations – so much so that, at times, I feared the weather was all people talked about. Yet after 380 centimetres of snow fell on my front lawn that first winter (yes, I took it personally), I began to understand the social mentality of weather consciousness.

About a decade later, even before I became a Canadian citizen, I knew I was a full-fledged Montrealer: my social conversations with other people always began with a discussion about the weather.

The concern with the state of our outdoor condition, both in the present and the future, is not born merely out of a need to know what to wear; rather, it suggests a very real social consciousness and apprehension. We need to be aware of our surroundings. We need to understand how our natural world operates and how it affects us. People are not immune to the forces of nature, not individually nor communally. Our moods and motivations are preconditioned by the weather. Our ability to function, both as individuals and communities, is tied to the weather.

Just recently, these factors hit home with a very exacting force. In Quebec and Ottawa, floods forced over 5,000 evacuations. More than 2,000 homes may have been destroyed. We can easily recall other (not-so) natural disasters in recent times, from raging forest fires, to earthquakes and tsunamis. Just mentioning cities such as New Orleans and Houston bring forth images of ruin and tragedy – of people and communities left depleted and abandoned.

Weather affects our personal world and social configurations. But now we see that it has the power to transform and challenge our entire world. And we have failed that world. We have acted arrogantly and we have foundered in our duty to future generations.


I am not a specialist in the world of environmental engineering, but I do know that we have developed vast tracts of land without considering the flood plains and the wetlands, nature’s own absorption system. We cut trees irresponsibly. We polluted. We built cities without planning on shifting tectonic plates. Now, we must stop and rethink everything. But you and I are not able to make such large-scale changes. We can talk about it, but that is not enough. We can try to influence policy by voting, but we must do so carefully.

For Jews, there is one other thing we can do: we can revisit our own heritage to see if there are guidelines in the Torah that can guide us. Many will look at Genesis 1:28: “God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and all the living things that creep on earth.”

The basic interpretation of this passage is that we did just that: we acted with dominion and mastery, and ended up misusing the natural resources without exercising the necessary restraint and respect. Yet this is not a good interpretation of the Torah. Indeed, those who follow this line of reasoning have stopped reading too soon.

Genesis 2:15 states, “The Lord God took the human and placed him in the garden of Eden to till it and tend it.” The two verbs used in this passage are understood generally to mean to work (l’ovdah) the land and guard it (l’shomrah). These are two cosmic duties that complete the requirement of dominion: working for, as well as working on, and most importantly, safeguarding. Humanity neglected these obligations, which should always accompany the position of power and authority.

Do we still have time to initiate these actions? We won’t know until we try. But the time for talk is over. Action is required – no, it’s demanded!

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