Last year, my son and his wife refused to attend a family party in Florida that was being arranged by my sister-in-law. My sister-in-law was so angry that they would not attend. My son said that they were afraid of the Zika virus that was now common in South Florida. My sister-in-law thought that was a silly reason to skip the party and was not timid to tell them so.
Two months later, they told Michelle’s sister the reason they would not attend. My daughter-in-law was pregnant and the Zika virus was very dangerous to fetal growth. At last Michelle’s sister understood and all was forgiven. The Zika virus destroys growing brain cells in a fetus and can lead to many difficult birth defects.
Florida has spent millions trying to control the mosquitos that carry the Zika virus. The state has tried many different tactics to eradicate the mosquitos that carry the disease, even spraying insecticide intensively over the neighborhoods where the virus can be found. Still the infections continue to spread, adults get mildly sick but for infants, it can be deadly. It is a serious public health problem.
I recently came across the Zika virus in the news again. But this time it was a different story. It seems that the Zika virus is particularly deadly to brain cells that are growing. Most adults have brains that have stopped growing long ago, except for a few, the adults with brain cancer, where the brain cells are growing out of control. It is a very difficult cancer to fight. I read that there are scientists that are using the Zika virus to attack the tumor cells because they leave the normal brain cells alone. What was deadly to a fetus, turns out to be a miracle cure for adults.
This week as we begin again our Torah reading, we read that human beings were given the command by God to take care of the earth and all that God has created upon it. Humans are to tend the garden of Eden and to steward the planet to ensure that there is everything each creature needs to survive. Caretaking is the first occupation that humans are given by God.
There is a book that was published last year, by an Israeli professor, entitled “Sapiens” and the focus of the book is to figure out how our species, Homo Sapiens, has become one of the most successful species on the planet. I would like to say that it is a book about how wise and wonderful we are. It is not. It seems that Homo Sapiens was only one of the Homo species created on this planet and over time, Homo Sapiens was able to drive all the human competitors into extinction. We have been busy, since then, growing more animals that we like and getting rid of the animals we don’t like. We have sped up the rate of extinction of animals on the planet exponentially over the centuries. There still may be lots of cows, sheep, dogs and chickens because we Homo Sapiens find them useful. The wolf, the lion, the tiger, the elephant and the rhinoceros, which are useless to our species, have not fared as well.
Sometimes we spare animals because they are cute or interesting. Panda bears and whales are making a comeback. But we don’t get as excited over the extinction of rare fish, frogs and insects. You don’t see anyone campaigning to save the gnat, the mosquito or the fly. In short, we have not fulfilled the command of our creator, we have not been good stewards of the planet.
Now, to be honest, extinctions have been going on long before human beings walked this planet. Humans are not responsible for the death of dinosaurs or other prehistoric animals. Nature is constantly experimenting with different genetic combinations and the ones that are not successful or who cannot adapt to a changing environment soon become extinct. That is part of the natural course of nature. But we cannot deny that some very successful creatures that were once abundant on this planet were not able to continue in the face of human beings and their need for more space and more to eat. Passenger Pigeons were eaten out of existence as were Dodo birds. We almost killed off all the bison in this country as well. Sea turtles are suffering a lack of space to lay eggs and people who want to eat those eggs. Sea Turtles are considered endangered.
God, in our parsha, gives us a mandate to care for the planet. We have, over the millennia, favored the plants and animals we like over those we felt were competitors for food and for space to grow. And yet, we often don’t know which organisms we are pushing out today, will be the miracle cures for tomorrow. We Homo Sapiens have a narrow view of what we like today, without regard for what may become important in the future.
In our quest to grow more food, we use phosphorous and nitrogen to fertilize the land. These same chemicals are then washed into rivers and lakes causing huge algae blooms that deplete the oxygen in the water and kill off all the fish. Runoff from our fields have created a huge “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico where no life can live with the toxic chemicals that are deposited in the water where the Mississippi River flows into the sea. Invasive species have decimated trees in the forest as has polluted rain. Other chemicals released into the atmosphere have begun to erode the parts of our planet that protect us from many of the harmful rays from the sun.
God set up the world with a certain environmental balance. Each creature has a place in the system. Our Torah reading today reminds us that we should be preserving this system, not destroying the parts that we don’t necessarily like. King David once thought a spider was useless, until it saved his life when he was pursued by King Saul. An ordinary bee was able to advise King Solomon when he was faced with a difficult puzzle. In the same way there is much we can learn from nature if we just take the time to pay attention to the wonderful creatures that surround us instead of trying to kill them all off.
Like the Zika virus, what is at first condemned as a dangerous organism, suddenly has healing properties as well. Who knows what animal or by product of an animal will one day help us in ways we cannot yet imagine.
There must be a reason that God created the insects a full day before human beings were created. Before we declare any animal, insect, plant or virus as unnecessary, we need to really ask the question as to if this one part of nature will one day help us master a new and better way of living in happiness, health and in peace.
Only God knows what is important to preserve on this planet and what will ultimately go extinct. We do God’s creation a disservice if we try to judge the planet only by what is useful to us today. There is still much to learn and many new discoveries to be uncovered by science and technology. If we were to look at nature dispassionately, we might discover the worst parasite on the planet is US!!
This planet is not designed to be our personal play toy. We are commanded to care for this planet because if we mess it up there will be no one else to make it right after us. A species that is gone, is gone forever and we are the poorer without it in ways we still might not know.
Let us use our wisdom, strength and versatility not to destroy this world, but to care for all of its creatures. It may not always be easy and yes, sometimes people will not be able to do everything we may want to do, but the future that we save may be our own. God is telling us from the beginning: Do right by this planet and it will be a giving home. If we do wrong, there is no one coming who can set it right again.
May God help us always be good stewards of our planet and may we look upon all creatures as if they will someday be the key to our survival. May God bless us and all of the many varieties of life on this planet as we say …. Amen and Shabbat Shalom
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, October 14, 2017.