The world has just been created. The majesty of creation has unfolded. God, in His infinite wisdom, brought forth a world of brilliant ecological diversity and beauty. The trees tower in the sky. The birds fly through the air. The fish race through the streams. Amidst all of this bounty, God places the first human on the earth. A being created in the image of the Divine looks out at this world and wonders what purpose it shall have. God answers that bewildering question for the existence of humanity in the following verse:
“And the Lord God took the person, and put him in the Garden of Eden, to work it (לְעָבְדָהּ) and to safeguard it. (Genesis 2:15)”
The purpose of humanity therefore is to protect the natural world. It is to maintain the delicate balance of life, the web of existence that locks one entity in an interdependent relationship with the other. Yet, that is not all. Humanity must also work in this world. What possible work could there be to do for humanity in a world made by God? Either God, in His perfection, made the world perfect, or it is lacking and requires the intervention of people to improve it.
In the very beginning of the second chapter of Genesis, God declares “יְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ”. The heaven and the earth were finished. Creation was done and reached a pinnacle of perfection. At the end of the first chapter of Genesis, God looks out at all of the world and proclaims that it is “וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד.” The world is not only good, but very good.
What then was this work that humanity was charged to do?
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l ponders this question in the opening of his conversation with Rabbi Reuven Zeigler in the book “באור פניך יהלכון.” Rabbi Lichtenstein offered the following profound notion: Humanity has a twofold obligation, not only to the natural world, but within our own Jewish lens, to the continuation of Jewish life as well.
On one hand, we are charged to safeguard what we have inherited. We must be guardians of the treasure of the world and the treasure of our people, the Jewish tradition. We must view this task with great seriousness and understand it as a grave responsibility.
While, on the other hand, we must constantly infuse that tradition with creativity and innovation. We must not only safeguard but also must “work” it and apply it to new situations and new circumstances. The world is not an item in a museum to be admired from afar and neither is Judaism. If we do not balance our charge to protect and safeguard with an equally important charge to be creative and innovate, the very thing we are meant to preserve will wither away from atrophy and neglect.
The question before us today, as it has been in every generation, is will we rise to the challenge as articulated by Rav Lichtenstein? Will we be trustworthy guardians of our legacy? Will we also be creators and innovators? Will we be able to balance the two?
The challenges before us today are tremendous: A postmodernist critique of truth and of revelation; A seismic revolution in gender roles globally; the struggles of a modern Jewish state; new models of authority and ownership brought about by a “sharing economy” and a series of rabbinic scandals that have further weakened traditional notions of authority.
Will we respond to these challenges and others only with the perspective of a guardian? Will we withdraw and retreat or will we face the world and the reality and seek to preserve and to innovate simultaneously? For the sake of the Jewish people, for the sake of the world, I pray we choose the latter.