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29. Environmental Ethics

March 12, 2014 | by Rabbi Yaakov Aaronson

Sensitivity to animals helps develop greater sensitivity to people.

Trust in G-d1:2:5
Section 1: Fundamentals of Existence
Chapter 2: Purpose of Creation
Point 5

This primary, essential creature is man. All other created things, whether above or below man, only exist for his sake, to complete his environment through their various different qualities, appropriate for each of them. This will be discussed later in more detail.

To end off Chapter 2, the Ramchal tells us something we've presumed to be true all along: Human beings are the ultimate purpose of creation.

To put the point into greater focus, how should we view animal conservation, and the environmental ethics issues? Should we say that since we are all fellow travelers on planet Earth, we have an obligation to save endangered species of animals and Brazilian rainforests? Or do we say the opposite: Since humans are the purpose of creation, and all else "exists only for our sake," I can take an exploitative stance on the environment? After all, don't the animals exist for me to make use of them – whether through riding, eating, hunting, or whatever else I deem fitting?

The answer, of course, lies at neither extreme. Yes, all of creation is for us to use. This creates a privilege as well as a responsibility. The Talmud1 relates a story about a Jewish sage named Choni Hama'agel:

One day he was traveling along a road and saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, "How long does it take (for this tree) to bear fruit?"

The man replied, "Seventy years."

He then asked him, "Are you sure that you'll live another 70 years?"

The man said, "I found carob trees in the world (when I was born). Just as my ancestors planted these for me, so I too plant these for my children."

It's a two-track system: We have an obligation to take care of the tools that G-d gave us, yet we can never lose sight of the fact that they are a means to an end – to see the greater spiritual potential inherent in all of G-d's creation.

Torah and the Animal World

There are a variety of commandments in the Torah that define our obligations to the animal world. For example, the Torah states:2

If a bird's nest happens to be before you on the road, on any tree or on the ground – young birds or eggs – and the mother is roosting on the young birds or the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall surely send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you and will prolong your days.

This mitzvah seems to tell us of G-d's concern for the animal world. At the same time, the Talmud3 states that it is inappropriate to say: "G-d, just as You showed compassion to the bird's nest, so too have compassion on us." G-d didn't give us this commandment for the sake of protecting animals, but rather for our own sake – to train us in the attribute of mercy. If we develop a sensitivity to the feelings of a bird, that will ennoble us and give us greater sensitivity to humans as well.

Why Negative Traits?

The elements of perfection through which man can perfect himself are his intellectual powers and all good human traits. Material matters and evil human traits, on the other hand, are the elements of deficiency among which man is placed to earn perfection.

The last point the Ramchal makes in this chapter is a clarification of "the elements of perfection" that we've been talking about all along. He describes them as internal capacities that we all have. Good character traits, like kindness, compassion, and the drive for greatness and spirituality will obviously bring us the ultimate pleasure of connection to G-d – because not only are they character strengths, they are ways of emulating G-d Himself, as we described earlier.

On the other hand, the elements of deficiency, "among which man is placed to earn perfection," are negative character traits. According to the Ramchal, why did G-d go out of His way to give us traits like anger, jealousy and laziness? So that overcoming them is a challenge, and when we choose the correct path, we have the pleasure of earning our closeness with G-d.

However, the Ramchal goes a step further. He tells us that not only were we created with the balance of good traits versus negative traits, we were also created with a similar dynamic of intellect versus "material matters." This idea might strike us as strange. Is the opposite of intellect really materialism? Does a person have to choose brains over physicality to get close to G-d?

Actually, the Ramchal is introducing a new element to the discussion which will be a topic in the next chapter, "Man." But so we're not left hanging in the meantime, consider the following: Who would feel more easily connected to G-d – someone who naturally gets excited over a sizzling steak, or someone who gets naturally excited over discovering an insight into the beauty of life?

Summary of Chapter 2: Purpose of Creation

Chapter 1 ended with the logical basis for believing that an infinite being created and is sustaining all of finite existence. At the same time, G-d in essence is unimaginable, an absolute perfect unity beyond time, space and any other finite constraint. That conclusion naturally leads us to reconsider the whole purpose of creation.

2.1 – G-d created us to get pleasure.

G-d has no needs, and therefore the only purpose we can ascribe to G-d is that creation is the ultimate act of giving. We were created to derive pleasure from our own existence.

Furthermore, the ultimate possible pleasure would be the ability to connect back to the source of all goodness and all existence – G-d Himself.

2.2 – Ultimate pleasure involves choosing it for ourselves.

In order for the pleasure to be real, G-d set up a system where we can earn the pleasure. By making ourselves G-d-like, not only do we gain the pleasure of connection, but also the pleasure of becoming "the masters" by earning it for ourselves.

To allow for the possibility to "earn," G-d created a world which offers man the opportunity to make choices.

2.3 – All good and evil is G-d manifesting or hiding Himself.

Every aspect of good in the world (e.g. the opportunity to perform an act of kindness) is actually an aspect of G-d Himself being manifest into the world. When we perform the kindness, in spiritual terms we are actually clinging to G-d Himself.

Similarly, when we choose an act of evil, we are grabbing at a lack of G-dliness. This drive for evil is an illusion that ultimately provides no feeling of connection or satisfaction.

2.4 – All of life is an ongoing opportunity to make the right choices and have the relationship.

Since the entire purpose of creation is to choose the relationship, that ability has to be there all the time. Thus the opportunities to choose goodness and perfection appear in many guises – in relationships, health, finances, understanding one's role and responsibility in the world, etc. Life is one giant metaphor for connection with G-d.

2.5 Everything was created for man

The only real players in life are us and G-d. Everything else is the means for forging the relationship. G-d uses this world to speak with us, and we, through our moral and spiritual decisions, connect back to G-d. All of our healthy drives are the tools that G-d gave us to get there, and all of our negative drives are challenges, to make the choices of good more meaningful and pleasurable.

Questions to Think About

  • Without the Torah saying so, is there any independent way for us to know that man is the pinnacle of creation?
  • The Ramchal says: "All other created things, whether above or below man, only exist for his sake, to complete his environment." Based on this, would a Torah outlook support a "save the Brazilian rain forests" campaign? Why or why not?
  • People choose to be vegetarians for many different philosophical and health reasons. What type of vegetarianism would the Torah support, and which would it not?
  • In the story of creation, G-d labels each day as "good," but the creation of mankind is "very good." The Sages explain that this "very good" was the creation of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. How can the creation of the evil inclination be considered "very good"?!


  1. Ta'anit 23b
  2. Deut. 22:6-7
  3. Brachot 33b; cf Nachmanides

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