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Taking Back Nature: A Reflection

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky

Every so often, we are reminded that we are not the conquerors, but trustees.

A wealthy man once lent a poor person a very large sum of money. At the end of the year he asked for the money back. The poor man scrambled hard, but in the end managed to return the money.

Two days later, the wealthy man offered the money back again. This repeated itself periodically. Finally, the poor man could not contain his curiosity, and he asked the wealthy man, "If you do not need the money, why do you take it back every so often?"

"I don't need the money now," he replied, "but I don't want you to start thinking that it is yours."

The greatness bestowed upon man is the mastery over the universe; the mastery over nature. Man was charged at his very beginning, "Rule over the earth and conquer it." Animals have been harnessed, fields have been plowed, rivers have been tamed, mighty cities have been built, the great secrets of the atom have been ripped from it, heavens and their planets have lost their invincibility -- all by man's fulfillment of that primordial charge, "Rule over the earth and conquer it."

So magnificent is mankind's dominion, that the angels complained, "What is man that you remember him … that you have placed all under his feet?" (Psalms 8).

But every so often, we are reminded that we are not the conquerors, but trustees. Every so often God simply takes back nature, and man is all too painfully reminded that he is naught but God's custodian.

The personal suffering and tragedy is simply overwhelming, and we cannot even begin to fathom the "whys" of every person's tragedy. But for humanity as a whole it is a most sobering realization. After all, the crowing as to how "we have conquered," "our genius has taken us to the moon," "nothing remains invincible," our hubris has been dashed in an instant. Nature did not need to struggle, to rebel or to wage a mighty war. It simply reared its head, and we were gone…

The answer does not lie in stopping the march of science and progress. God desires that man use his abilities and talents to tame the world and develop it. But He desires that we not enter it as haughty conquerors but, rather, as faithful custodians, bearing in mind at all times Who is the owner.

"God's voice is upon the waters… from the sound of a multitude and mighty waters, of breaking waves, [we discern] that there is a powerful God above" (Psalms 29)


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