The month to fully contemplate creation

The month of Tishrei begins with “the birthday of the world” on Rosh Hashanah and runs through to Creation itself, with the environmentally focused observance of Sukkot sandwiched between them.

This is as it should be, because one of Sukkot’s main focuses is its environmental message. I have written about that message in previous years. As we approach Sukkot, it is appropriate to review why we have such a festival, but it is perhaps equally important to focus on what else emerges from that “why.” Our role, after all, reaches far beyond protecting the natural world and all it contains. In every sense, our job is to make this world an even better place tomorrow than it was yesterday.

Three times each day during Rosh Hashanah we recited the same verse, “hayom harat olam. Today is the birthday of the world.” That birthday, however, is not the anniversary of the Big Bang. Rather, it is the anniversary of the sixth day of Creation, when humanity came into being.

According to Genesis 1:28, after creating ha-adam, “the human,” God commanded humans to “subdue” the Earth “and have dominion over” it.

That does not mean what people think it means. As the medieval commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra explained, this means that “man is God’s steward over the earth, and must do everything according to God’s word [because steward is a specific term, referring to a commission for a specific task. That task is found in Genesis 2:15]: ‘And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to till it and tend it.’”

All of the Torah’s legislation regarding the care we must take to protect the natural world flows from Genesis 2:15 —including caring for its flora and fauna, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the natural resources buried beneath our feet. The mandate “to till it and tend it” is a focus of the harvest festival that is Sukkot.

There is more, however, buried in the earlier verse, Genesis 1:28, as the modern commentator Nechama Leibowitz, among many others, has noted. The phrase “have dominion over,” she said, includes “harness[ing] the forces of nature for human good, and exploit[ing] the mineral wealth around,” also for human good.

That is why the “birthday of the world” is the sixth day of Creation. We humans were created in order to continue the process of Creation that God began. No other creature can achieve what we can. Without the human being, Earth today would be much like it was on the morning of the sixth day, before humanity came into existence. Everything we know and take for granted about our world would not exist.

Well, not quite, because everything we know and take for granted about our world in fact did exist before humans walked the Earth. Every invention, every innovation, that ever was or ever will be comes about because someone unlocked one of the secrets of Creation, and then used in a new way materials that came into existence when God said “let there be light.” The “Big Bang” God called into being contained the ingredients for everything that could ever exist.

This is not a new thought. Many of our Sages of Blessed Memory actually said that the only act of Creation God did was to say “Let there be light.” The rest of Creation flowed from that light. In the midrash, for example, Rabbi Berachiah, quoting others, said that God created the world “only by a word —‘Let there be light.’” The Zohar said this light was “the medium for the creation of the world…; all the generations of heaven and earth were produced” by it.

At the end of day six, the Torah declares, “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

The principal role God gave us humans is to unlock the secrets of Creation He put “in the air,” so we can improve on Creation, and make the world even better than when God ceased from His creative labors at the end of day six.

What do I mean by the secrets of Creation? Perhaps the most significant medical advance in our lifetime came in the early days of this century, with the mapping of the human genome, literally the building blocks that allow human beings to be human beings. That human genome existed from the moment the first human came into being. It is the building material that made that human being.

It took $1 billion and 13 years to determine the sequence of the 3 billion “letters” in a human being’s DNA, and that was only possible because someone had discovered DNA in the first place 150 years earlier — although he did not know it at the time. The myriad secrets buried within the secret that was DNA are leading us to cure the incurable, to slow the aging process, and to extend quality of life, and so much more.

Gene therapy is being used to reverse certain types of blood cancers, including leukemia, and it shows considerable promise in defeating breast cancer.

One of the most promising developments — and maybe the most dangerous, but that is for another column — is the ability to take each cell of a genome apart to see what it is made of, and then to recreate that cell synthetically. That actually was done about eight years ago, when researchers synthesized the full genome of a bacterium. In other words, they recreated one of the earliest lifeforms. The possibilities emerging from that are almost endless, for bad as well as good.

Then there is 3-D printing, which is being used successfully to create such working body parts as an outer ear, blood vessels, a trachea, and even skin cells imprinted on wounds to speed up healing.

Revealing the secrets of Creation about how the body works also has led to understanding how to better deal with some truly debilitating conditions, such as blindness. There now exists a bionic eye that is restoring sight to some. Then there is the artificial cornea developed in Israel in 2017, and now undergoing clinical trials. Many of the 30 million people who suffer from diseases of the cornea will get sight back because of that development.

Israeli researchers even have developed a way to regenerate bone, something considered impossible until now.

There are all kinds of secrets of Creation being unveiled almost every day. God put those secrets “in the air” for us to find and it is our job to see to it that they are found, but because they each come at a price — a very high price in almost every case, like the billion dollars it took to map the human genome — we offer no protest when politicians strip funding from the very researchers and institutions doing the work to uncover those secrets.

Many of these secrets of Creation have saved countless lives, and have the potential to improve the quality and the longevity of everyone’s life. There are even greater secrets waiting to be revealed, but they will stay hidden if we stay silent.

During Sukkot and especially on Simchat Torah, when the first chapter of Genesis is read, and then again on the following Shabbat when the entire first portion of Genesis is read, we need to give serious thought to next Rosh Hashanah, when we will face another “birthday of the world,” and will have to explain what we did to make it the world a better one.

G’mar tov and chag Sukkot sameach.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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