To cultivate greatness, we must develop a deep soul-awareness. When you truly engage in such a practice, you will see the results in both your personal life, as well as your surroundings.
Yet today’s high-tech, hyper-connected world doesn’t leave much space for spirituality.
When we are too caught up in experiencing the world without “shepherd consciousness,” we tend to make decisions from our own narrow, “get-ahead” reality.
When we focus too much on “doing,” without making time for “being” – we are more likely to make decisions that transform the earth in negative ways.
This is the source of many environmental problems today.
Air and water pollution. Species loss. Climate change.
These are problems not of the environment, but of a society bent on doing and producing seven days a week.
There is a story of Abraham passing by a palace on fire. He wonders aloud, “Who is the owner of this palace?”
Today with global warming, the world’s great forests are burning as never before. One could look at the planet and legitimately ask, “Who is in charge of this problem?”
God’s response may be to us, just as it was to Abraham, “Go forth,” or “Reach into yourself.”
We all share responsibility for our common home.
A distraught father, whose son was beginning to stray from the path of his forefathers, once brought his son to the Alter Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi.
The Alter Rebbe asked the boy what he enjoyed doing. The boy responded that he liked riding horses.
“And what qualities do you look for in a horse?” Rabbi Shneur Zalman asked him.
“Speed,” the boy replied.
“And what if you are on a fast horse which takes a wrong turn in the road?” the sage continued.
“You can get very lost in a hurry,” was the boy’s response.
“And what if you turn the horse around?” the elderly sage pressed on.
“You can get back just as fast.”
A slight smile crept across Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s face as the boy nodded his head, indicating that he understood the Alter Rebbe’s message.
Many people fear that humans have irrevocably destroyed the ecology of “Eden” on earth.
But there is hope… We can turn around our horses, currently galloping out of control toward oblivion. There is still time to learn from our mistakes and act in ways that reverse environmental degradation.
Thousands of years of shepherding flocks of sheep and goats can give us insights into spiritual and ecological living today.
The Egyptians, for example, only knew abundance from the Nile. They could not imagine a world where the Nile did not flood each year to provide water for their crops.
Certainty and stability in the past can mislead us as we try to prepare for an uncertain future. For many people who have enjoyed material stability and abundance in the past half century, it is difficult to imagine that the next half century will be much different.
Joseph, a shepherd who experienced scarcity in Israel, was able to envision a famine in Egypt.
Joseph used his prophetic insight to instruct Egypt to make provisions during seven years of plenty, for the seven years of famine that would follow.
Anticipating an impending human-ecological disaster, he had Egyptians gather grain in the time of plenty as insurance against hard times to come. Egypt benefited because Joseph forced the Egyptians to show restraint ahead of a crisis.
We may not have the luxury of Joseph’s God-given absolute knowledge and power, but we do have the past to learn from, and dreams for our future to drive us to action.
A shepherd bears responsibility for the safety and welfare of the flock. The shepherd herds the flock to graze in areas of good forage, and protects the animals from eating poisonous plants or being attacked by predators.
God is likened to a shepherd who leads His flock to pastures and cares for every animal. The allusions to nature suggest an ideal harmony between humanity and the environment, with God in charge.
The shepherd is devoted to the holiness and purity of life, refrains from harming others, and sacrifices some personal pleasure for an ethical and upright path.
When we are capable of fulfilling this ideal, we will naturally be triumphant in attaining the great spiritual task of infusing our moral lifestyle with one that is also environmentally sustainable.
With 8 billion people sharing our planet, the greatest risk comes from seemingly inconsequential actions of individuals, combining in their impact.
For the first time in history, humans can now destroy or radically alter virtually all life on earth – a power so great it could once only be ascribed to God.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught about a person singing four songs, representing four levels of concern.
The first level is individual concern. On a higher level, a person is concerned for their nation or people. Beyond that, a person cares for all of humanity. The highest level is to connect to and care for all of creation.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov emphasizes the significance of the shepherd-flock relationship:
“Know that every shepherd has a special song.”
A lesson we can learn from Noah and his Ark is that the world is a “closed,” integrated system.
Noah and his eight-person crew maintained a sort of proto-Biodome inside the Ark, struggling to preserve a functional level of ecological balance in the most challenging of situations.
Within such a system, every action has a significant impact and ramifications, and individual elements can be aligned to strengthen and assist one another.
In modern times, this ecological balance can be demonstrated by walking, riding bikes, and using public transportation in congested areas. These individual decisions collectively reduce pollution while easing traffic jams.
Individually, these very same choices can reduce personal stress and keep us more fit.
This extends to the food we eat, the products we purchase, and our level of consumption within local economies. Individual action leads to collective results.
Rabbis throughout the ages make clear that God tasks humanity with caring for creation.
The Midrash teaches that when God created Adam, He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, “Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world – for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
If we see in our role as masters of the earth a unique opportunity to truly serve and care for the planet, its creatures and its resources, then we can reclaim our status as stewards of the world, and raise our new and future generations in an environment much closer to that of Eden.
The final challenge for humankind is to live sustainably with nature, to embody “shepherd consciousness” fully.
Every person — even you — has the power to recreate paradise.
“Almost as soon as I began reading, I knew that the Eco Bible would be a long term companion for me as I work to care for God’s creation and encourage other people of faith to do the same. Most communities of environmentalists I’ve encountered are heavily burdened by grim predictions of the future, which create an atmosphere of pessimism and disillusionment. What is unique to a Biblical perspective is hope, the “knowledge that we can choose; that we can learn from our mistakes and act differently next time.” The focus of environmentalism in the Eco Bible is completely different from a secular sense of hopelessness: here there is a spiritual conviction that we can and must turn from our destructive actions and live as we were created to: in peaceful, mutually beneficial flourishing with all that is.”
Yonatan Neril is a member of the Faith-Based Advisory Council of the UN Interagency Task Force and the advisory board of the Alliance For The Care Of Our Common Home: A Joint Initiative of the Pontifical Universities in Rome. Raised in California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a focus on global environmental issues, and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He currently lives with his wife, Shana and their two children in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Leo Dee received a Master’s in Engineering from Cambridge University, a Master’s in Public Health from Hebrew University, and rabbinical ordination in Israel. Following six years as a community Rabbi in the United Kingdom, he moved to Israel where he has worked in the Israeli financial community and within the field of Responsible Investment. He serves as director of programs at The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. He lives near Jerusalem with his wife, Lucy, and their children.