The Limits of Human Dominion

"And God created the human being in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and exercise your dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every living creature that moves upon the earth. And God said: Lo! I have given you every seed-bearing plant that is upon the surface of the entire earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; it shall be yours for food." (Genesis 1:27-29).

Dear Friends,

When the first human couple lived in the Garden of Eden, they were given the right to exercise dominion over the earth and its creatures; however, the Creator limits the human diet to "every seed-bearing plant that is upon the surface of the entire earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit." This is the first indication that humankind was not given absolute dominion. Later, after the great flood which devastated the earth, the Creator gave human beings permission to eat meat (Genesis 9:3); nevertheless, they were forbidden to eat a limb or flesh from a living animal. In fact, the Torah, which was later given to the People of Israel, includes dietary laws which greatly limit the consumption of meat. In his book, "The Vision of Eden," Rabbi David Sears discusses the various philosophical, mystical, and practical reasons why humankind was given permission to eat meat after the great flood; moreover, he also discusses whether humankind will return to the diet of Eden in the messianic age. God-willing, at a later stage of this series, we shall discuss some of the sources he cites regarding this subject.

When we take a fruit off a tree, plow the earth, harvest a crop, or cut down a tree for its wood, we are exercising our right of dominion; nevertheless, the Torah teaches that our right of dominion must be in the spirit of our human mission, as it is written:

"The Compassionate and Just One took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it." (Genesis 2:15)

The human mission is to serve and protect the earth; thus, human dominion must be understood in this context. In fact, our sages say that the Divine mandate to serve the earth is a prototype for all the mitzvos of the Torah which enable us to improve and elevate the world; moreover, the Divine mandate to protect the earth is a prototype for all the mitzvos of the Torah which prevent us from damaging and degrading the world (Tikunei Zohar 55). The Torah and its path of mitzvos can be therefore be viewed as a path which greatly limits human dominion over the earth and its creatures. We shall cite specific examples in future letters.

According to the Midrash, the following biblical passage contains a subtle reminder that human dominion is not an absolute and automatic right:

"And God said: Let us make humankind in Our image, after our likeness. They shall exercise dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the animals, the whole earth, and all creeping thing that creep upon the earth" (Genesis 1:26.)

The Torah first states that humankind is to be created in the Divine image before stating that human beings will have dominion. This order indicates that being in the Divine image is a prerequisite for having a right of dominion; thus, the Midrash cites the following teaching in the name of Rabbi Yaacov from the village of Chanin:

Those human beings who demonstrate that they are in the Divine image and likeness shall have dominion over other creatures, but those human beings who demonstrate that they are not in the Divine image and likeness shall sink lower than the other creatures! (Genesis Rabbah 8:12 - Commentaries of Etz Yosef, Matanos Kehunah, and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch)

In previous letters, we mentioned that being in the Divine image gives us both the capacity and the responsibility to emulate the Divine attributes of lovingkindness and compassion, as Scripture states: 'The Compassionate One is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works' (Psalm 145:9). Rabbi Yaacov's teaching is therefore conveying the following message: When human beings actualize their spiritual potential by dedicating all aspects of their being to sacred giving and caring, they demonstrate that they are in the Divine image. They are therefore given a limited right of dominion over other creatures. But if human beings dedicate all aspects of their being to gratifying their selfish lusts for pleasure and power, then they have failed to demonstrate that they are in the Divine image. They therefore lose the right of limited dominion, moreover, they become lower than all the other creatures!

The above analysis of the verse was inspired by the fact that the Hebrew verb "V'Yirdu" (they shall exercise dominion) is similar to V'Yardu" (they will become lower). The Midrash therefore finds in this verse a Divine hint that if human beings do not activate their potential as human beings created in the Divine image, they can become lower than all the other creatures.

In the spirit of the above teachings, Rabbi Hirsch writes:

"Guided by the Torah, we have discovered the position of the human being within creation. He is to be neither god nor slave of the earthly world but a brother and fellow worker. However, because of the nature and scope of his service, he holds the rank of the firstborn; he is to be the administrator of the earth, and it is his task to attend to everything on it and further it in accordance with the Divine will. It is only from God, the Source of all power, that he has received the right to appropriate the world for his own use; and with this privilege comes also the duty to take only that which the Giver has permitted and to use it according to His will." (The Nineteen Letters Letter 5)

Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings:

1. Rabbi David Sear's book, "The Vision of Eden," cites the following statement of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a leading sage of the early 20th century: "No intelligent, thinking person could suppose that when the Torah instructs humankind to dominate, it means the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to fulfill his personal whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart. It is unthinkable that the Torah would impose such a decree of servitude sealed for all eternity, upon the world of God, Who is, 'good to all, and his mercy is upon all His works' (Psalm 145:9), And Who declared, 'The world shall be built upon lovingkindness' (Ibid, 89:3)."

2. Regarding the dominion of the human being, Rabbi Hirsch, in his commentary to Genesis 1:26, writes: "His mission is not to make them all entirely subservient to him. The earth and its creatures may have aspects that are beyond the sphere of his control, and in these respects they serve their own purpose."

3. For further study, see Rabbi Hirsch's commentary on the following words of King David which describe the human role in creation: "You have appointed him as steward over the works of Your hand" (Psalm 8:7 - Rabbi Hirsch's translation). Rabbi Hirsch points out that the Hebrew term in this verse which expresses human control also appears in the verse which describes the role of Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, "who was a steward over all things in Abraham's house" (Genesis 24:2). Just as Eliezer was a steward, and not the owner of the house, so too, the human being is the steward, and not the owner of the world. The human being must therefore remember, writes Rabbi Hirsch, the following truth: "The world does not exist for his sake. It is he who exists for the sake of the world to serve it; i.e. to bring it closer to its loftiest aims, as well as to guard and preserve it" (Genesis 2:15).

4. A review of "The Nineteen Letters" by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch appears on our website.

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