The environmental warning from Sinai

God is revealed not only in the words of the Torah but the entire text of creation


There is little more important today than how we live the first commandment, even if we don’t believe in God. As a species and civilisation, we have too often behaved as if it said “I, humankind, am the lord and master” of creation. We have acted with such anthropocentric presumption and taken so exploitative an approach to the rest of life that we risk undermining the future of everything. 

To the mystics, poets and lovers of the world, the words “I am the Lord your God” were not spoken once only in the far-off past when the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai. They are repeated every moment; all living being utters them. For God is revealed not only in the words of Torah but in the entire text of creation. As the great naturalist and social agitator Henry Thoreau said, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads”.

Maybe that’s why so many of us feel closest to God among trees, where deer graze, or, fleeing light pollution, alone with the deep night sky. It was no doubt with longing, as well as extraordinary spiritual stamina, that Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote in the winter of 1942: “From the chirping of the birds, the mooing of the cows, the voices and tumult of human beings — from all of these one hears the voice, the unceasing voice, of God.”

In such moments of awareness, we realise that the world is filled with wonder, that all existence is interconnected and that we too, in the core of our consciousness, are part of the infinite stream of sacred life which flows through all being. Then “I am the Lord your God” becomes more than just a theological proposition in which we may or may not believe. 

Instead, it represents an immediate feeling of awe, of reverence towards life and the source of life, cherished in the heart, acknowledged in the mind and accompanied by the intuitive resolve to behave with respect and humility towards all that is. 

These moments are immeasurably precious, but rare. Most of the time we experience ourselves as separate, apart and distinct from the rest of creation. Consumer civilisation feeds this sense of differentiation. It constantly encourages us to think in terms of me and mine: my needs, my goals, my satisfaction. There may be nothing intrinsically wrong with this; the Mishnah taught two thousand years ago that each person should be able to say, “For my sake the world was created”. Judaism requires us to look after our own needs, help provide for those of others and cherish everyone as a unique individual.

There is little more important today than how we live the first commandment

But the risk is that “I” and “me” become our idol. We may never consciously intend to do so, but in practice we are easily seduced into living as if the first commandment actually read: “I, me and mine are the god I worship day by day”. When we do that, we disconnect ourselves from the rest of creation, from the God of all life.

The terrible danger is that this is what we have done as a species. By semi-deifying itself above all other forms of life, we have all but forgotten that we belong to life, that we are not just an interdependent, but a wholly dependent, part of the intricate and wondrous ecology of existence. Too often we have treated other species with contempt and regarded the rest of nature, the very land and water, as mere commodities to be monetised and used. The very elements are now rebelling against our excessive exploitation.

Their warning is today’s Mount Sinai, God’s call to us at this critical juncture in human history. We can hear it in the melting of ice caps, the increased unpredictability of the climate, the courage and insistence of outspoken leaders from David Attenborough to Greta Thunberg, and in Pupils’ Strikes across the world. 

For many, this has nothing to do with religion. But for others the connection is profound. 

God’s voice is in all life. It calls to us not to make idols of consumerism, nationalism, religion, or our own species, but to listen with reverence to the whole of existence. The infinite energy which flows through all things, bestowing life in its manifold forms, to which we, a miniscule, short-lived, yet conscious part belong, is all a magnificent manifestation of the Oneness which says without words, “I am the Lord your God”.

This revelation is an urgent summons to change both our consciousness and our conduct. In Einstein’s words: “We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical illusion of our consciousness… Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of Nature in its beauty.”

Jonathan Wittenberg is Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive