Students Strike for the Future of Our World – An Expression of Tikkun Olam

On Friday, Students in Australia plan a strike (this time virtual) as they call on world leaders and decision-makers across the globe to take responsibility for climate change, and environmental degradation. This is especially timely in the era of COVID-19 and massive bush fires.  As part of the strike, there will be multi-faith service, where religious leaders will add to the call for a greater sense of responsibility to future generations and to the world which all of us share. While there are some would argue with the decision, I am proud that the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors, which I chair, will be represented at the service and issued a statement supporting the values and concerns which will be expressed.

In addition, however, I am also awed by the courage shown by the students who will be participating in the strike. It is very encouraging to me when young people take up the mantle of leadership for positive change in the world, whether about climate change, gun control, or any often the other existential issues that challenge our future. We often ask where young people are? Yet when they answer with peaceful but vocal action expressing their appropriate concerns, then we turn away from them with fear. Skipping school, we shout, is inappropriate and even illegal, but what tools have we left. Adults make all the decisions, and rarely care what younger generations think. How can they force us to listen? Instead, we need to hear their voices, even if we don’t always agree with their solutions. They are the inheritors of the messes that we have largely created. They want to act for change, and it behooves us to listen. These actions are the most genuine expression of Tikkun Olam – standing up and taking risks to make a better world.

Jewishly this clarion call to protect our shared environment could not have found a better week. Parasha Bahar, read this week in synagogues across the globe, presents a very different idea of ownership, then that which we embrace today. Every fiftieth year, the Jubilee, land was returned to dispossessed families and freedom to those that were enslaved. The message of Torah is clear, a human truly cannot be owned by another (our essential nature is freedom), and land also cannot truly be owned. Indeed, the Torah explicitly states, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity for the land is Mine.” To our Torah, we are stewards for a world that we did not create and do not own.

At the very beginning of our Torah, we learn that the Divine carefully plans everything. Every step leads to the next and indeed is necessary for the next. From the creation of light and dark, earth and sky, to the plants, animals, and humanity, all the required foundations are laid. Plants need land, fish need the sea, and animals and humans need sustenance. The constant refrain, “and it was good,” also highlights the importance of the Divine plan. With the use of these words, each element of creation is confirmed as essential and created as God intended. The completion of the creation is marked finally by the phrase, “it is very good.” While our ancestors may not have used the modern language of environmentalism and ecology, as the plan was fulfilled, there was a clear understanding that the cycle of dependencies was complete. Nothing was left to create, and the world was left to move forward like a well-oiled machine.[1]

While this plan also makes it clear that humanity is the culmination of creation[2], this does not deny the importance and, indeed, the ultimate essential unity of the entirety. Humanity is given dominion over creation, and all the animals and plants as food. They alone are blessed. Yet the right to “rule” is not synonymous with the right to destroy. While humanity alone receives the blessing from God, the text makes it clear that the entirety of creation, “all that God had made,” was “very good.” Humanity, created in the image of the Divine, is vested with a responsibility, to act with the same care and sense of responsibility as God did when the earth was created.

The rabbis explicitly understood the human responsibility to care for the earth, and the repercussions if we fail in the responsibility. The Midrash teaches, “When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, God took him and led him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.” [3] This Midrash reminds Adam us that it is far easier to destroy than create. It is also a graphic reminder that God will not be there if we destroy our environment, to pick up the pieces.

The greatest idolatry of humanity is our propensity to see ourselves as separate from the rest of creation, and as absolute masters of the world, utilizing our short-term political necessities and economic benefits (or costs) as rationalizations not to take action. Yet, the self-same threats with which we are quickly destroying the animal kingdom threaten our future as well. Sadly, even the thoughts that our descendants will suffer (and also vanish) due to our decisions does little to motivate action. Two thousand years ago, the Midrash addressed this issue, “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught a parable: Men were on a ship. One of them took a drill and started drilling underneath him. The others said to him: What are you doing?! He replied: What do you care. Is this not underneath my area that I am drilling?! They said to him: But the water will rise and flood us all on this ship.” [4] When we fail to take up the obligation of “repair,” and instead continue to destroy the earth and forget that we are not alone, then all will suffer, not only those who actively destroy.

Past generations stood up for change and helped to create a better world now, and it is time for us to listen (and indeed be proud) as our youth courageously challenge us to continue the work of Tikkun Olam.

[1] Gen. R 1:1-2, 12:2

[2] See Abarbanel on Genesis 1

[3] Kohel. R. 17:3

[4] Lev. Rabba 4:6. Though Rabbi Shimon’s parable addresses the consequence of individual sin (that is to say an individual’s choice to act), on an entire community, while the above analysis addresses a failure to respond, the consequences, and more importantly the failure of collective responsibility, are the sa

About the Author
David serves as rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan and leads the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. He also works closely with the emerging Jewish community in Indonesia. He has a strong commitment to interfaith relations, exemplified by, "Beyond the Golden Rule: A Jewish Approach to Dialogue and Discourse." His interest in human diversity has also shaped his passion as a successful photographer
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