During this Shabbat – Parasha Toldot – the Jewish Climate Network is focusing our attention on climate change by designating this Shabbat Climate Shabbat. Changes in our weather patterns can be caused by shifts in the sun’s activity or volcanic eruptions, however, since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change. If we don’t deal with the climate crisis as a global community the results of human-induced warming will be disastrous for humanity and all life on our planet.
What can our parsha teach us about the nature of the human condition? How do certain parables in our tradition raise our consciousness of the environment and the need to protect our planet?
Parasha Toldot opens with the following verses and the way in which our mystics interpret these verses gives us a way to understand the complexity of human nature:
“Isaac pleaded with God on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and God responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived.
But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of God,
God answered her, “Two nations, (Esau and Jacob) are in your womb, you will birth two separate peoples. One shall be mightier than the other, and the older (Esau) shall serve the younger (Jacob).” Genesis 20-23
Our rabbis of a mystical leaning interpreted these passages in a unique and powerful way. Focusing on the twins struggling in Rebecca’s womb and the following verse stating that the older will serve the younger, these Rabbis asked us not to interpret this verse literally but to look at the two peoples as an allegory describing struggle that takes place in each and every one of us between the Yetzer Ha Tov—the good inclination and the Yetzer Ha Ra—the evil or selfish inclination.
In our mystical tradition the effort to transform our selfish inclination and put it in the service of the greater good is at the heart of the Jewish spiritual path. While Judaism does not believe that we are born in a state of “original sin” the rabbis, in observing human nature, understood that we have a tendency to act selfishly. They accepted this reality but tried to steer us toward transcending our selfish impulses by putting them in the service of the Good.
Our tradition teaches us that every person has both a good and selfish inclination; however, we are commanded to act and behave in in a way that will strengthen the greater Good.
There is a famous story in the Talmud (tractate ta’anit 23a) that revolves around Honi Ha Ma’agal (the circle maker). It is a parable that I believe can help us understand the importance of moving away from an extractionist culture to a sustainable one. Honi saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked the man: “How long until the tree will bear fruit?” The man responded, “70 years.” When Honi expressed surprise, the man said, “I found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me so I am planting for my descendants.” Honi then fell into a deep sleep. He awoke 70 years later to see the man’s grandson collecting carobs from it. This story from the Talmud has deep resonance for our historical moment. In the Honi story, the man planting the tree for his descendants is using his Yetzer Ha Tov to work for the greater Good. He teaches us the importance of caring for the environment and how, by doing so—in this case, planting trees—we rise above our selfish nature and sustain those who follow us. Will we be able to learn from him and follow his example? The stakes have never been so high!
— Rabbi George Mordecai