The most pressing challenge facing the Jewish people is the same that is facing any people on earth: that of staying alive and healthy in a world of deteriorating environmental and psychological health. People want and need a few basics for survival: (1) A healthy planet (predictable patterns for the procurement of sustenance/food) and (2) An opportunity to lead a productive and rewarding life by seeking social and physical ties to other people and living beings. Yet, every day we learn that our environmental and social fabric is being frayed by our addiction to poisons, electronics, guns, social media, etc.
As Jews we have a blue print for what goes into a healthy and happy life. It is outlined in the Creation story in Breishit (Genesis). We need to be exposed to Creation and develop a kavanistic (intentional) relationship with nature. In Breishit 1:1-1:30 we learn that there was a healthy and vibrant natural world that contained light, clean air and water, food aplenty, and healthy plant and animal ecosystems. In Genesis 1:31 we learn the final, and very important part of Creation: Awe (“…Tov Meod,” and it was very good). Every individual part of Creation was good (ki tov), but only as a whole was it very good/tov meod. Even G-d was/is in Awe of Creation. How much more should people, especially learners, be in Awe of Creation?
How can we go from our current state of physical and emotional dystopia to one of spiritual and physical Awe? How do we develop Awe in our learners? Can Awe lead us to a more complete relationship with Creation? First, we need our learners to be exposed to Creation (nature). Second, we need to consider what our actions mean to Creation, in another word, to have kavannah (intention) in our actions with respect to Creation. Third, what actions do learners who have been exposed to Creation, and who posses kavannah, make or create? What does this person look/act like?
1. Exposure to Awe:
As educators we need to expose learners to Creation. Creation is Awe-filled: rainbows, millions of stars on the black canvas of a night sky, waterfalls, wildflowers, sunsets, flowers blooming in the dessert, are but a small part of Creation. It is nearly impossible to fall in love with something that has never been tactilely experienced. Without Awe of Creation, there is no reason that people will value nature or act to protect the natural world. In addition, exposure to Creation alleviates many of the social stresses and discord of our society.
Young people deserve/need to have the opportunity to experience the beauties of the natural world. We need trained and qualified educators to lead learners in outdoor activities that help create Awe. We need educators who can lead activities such as: feeling the softness and plushness of moss on feet, planting and nurturing trees/seeds, eating icicles, building natural forts (e.g. with snow or sticks.), sleeping under the milky way, making mud pies, feeling worms wriggle in hands, etc. All these actions help lead to Awe and are a person’s natural right. Jewish education needs to/should use Breishit as a blueprint for exposing people to the natural world/Creation. In addition, learners deserve educators who have the skills and experience to provide them with Awe filled experiences. Once we have exposed learners to the beauty and awesomeness of nature, they will have a reason to act to protect the Awe filled world. Exposure to Creation creates a relationship between the learner and Creation.
In Parshat Shoftim (Deut. 16:20) the Torah tells us, Tzedek Tzedek teerdof (Justice-Justice shall you pursue!). What is justice? It is my belief that justice is the ability to regulate one’s actions to be in alignment with humanistic values. ‘Humanistic values’ can be summed up in a the cross cultural statement, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a.) Exposure to Creation creates a relationship between the natural world and the learner. When a relationship has been formed between the learner and Creation via exposure, s/he understands that she is part of the whole of Creation. With the understanding that one is part of Creation, part of the whole, how/why would one be destructive towards the whole? Kavannah is thus an understanding that one is part of a larger whole and one’s actions need to respect not just the part, but also the whole.
3. What does this person look/act like?
The learner has the tools to consider what their actions mean in the context of Creation. “How/why should I put this poison on my crops to kill something that is part of Creation, for the pesticide will eventually negatively impact me?” Or, why should I buy this produce that has been sprayed with poison, for this pesticide will eventually negatively impact me and the people/place/Creation I have a relationship with. To understand one’s possible actions in the context to the whole, then to use that understanding to inform the action, is/must be the end game of education. Exposure to Creation and kavannah for Creation creates a person who can influence the future and be a light unto the nations.