Rabbi Hillel, who died about two decades before Jesus began his ministry, gave this summary regarding the preciousness of life:
If I am not for myself, who is for me?
If I care only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
There are many applications of the wisdom found in Rabbi Hillel’s summary of life. In this article I want to relate them to the ecological crisis we face in our day.
“If I am not for myself, who is for me?” At first these words may seem selfish, but Rabbi Hillel did not intend them to be taken that way. He meant we must take responsibility for ourselves, our future, and our well-being. Can we trust those who have vested interests in continuing the polluting ways of our society to look out for what is best for us? Can we depend on the advice and “wisdom” of those whose chief concerns are quarterly profits, the flourishing of a stock market which primarily benefits a small minority of individuals, and the insane drive to extract from creation every ounce of raw materials to continue a life-style which is not sustainable? Is it not possible that mothers and fathers, children and grandchildren, poets and troubadours are better sources when considering the future of the world–that people who love life and don’t want to exploit what allows for a truly splendid, “rich,” and authentic existence know more of what kind of future is best for Mother Earth and, therefore, for all of her children?
“If I care only for myself, what am I?” If we are concerned only for our own well-being and ease with no thought for our children, their future, and other creatures of this planet, then what are we? Lives of greed and exploitation not only destroy our environment. They also destroy our souls as we pour contempt on our Creator in whose image we are made. The excessive and grasping sense of entitlement many individuals have in our culture is a dangerous deterrent to the development of community, ethical sensitivity, and compassion. Those who have been denied basic human rights and opportunities to survive and thrive in our world are entitled to a fair chance to live free and joyful lives. However, those who already enjoy such privileges and already have an obscene portion of the world’s goods may want to consider Jesus’ teachings that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” There is little doubt that simple living will be required if we are to survive on this planet. What we don’t realize (but which every religious tradition teaches us) is this: such an approach would also allow us to experience a far more abundant life than we have in our addictive pursuit of that which can never give joy or allow for compassion (which is the primary characteristic of God we are called to emulate according to Jesus).
“If not now, when?” As far as the ecological health of this planet is concerned, this may be the most important question we can ask: “If not now, when?” The vast majority of scientists tell us that we have a very short period of time to begin massive changes in the ways we live on this planet if generations to come (our children and grandchildren) are to have a viable future. And shouldn’t the church take the lead in living an alternative to the polluting, wasteful, oppressive, and killing ways of our culture? Recycling, energy conservation, abandoning a dependence on polluting fossil fuels and embracing sustainable forms of energy such as solar and wind, saving forests and planting trees, holding our politicians and companies accountable, recovering the “forgotten truth” that the earth is our Mother—these are all ways we can respond faithfully in our time. I believe that as the church, we should be on the cutting edge of this new concern as we all face the greatest crisis in the history of humankind.
Why should the church take the lead? Because God has called us to care for this creation in ways that bless the earth—because we must leave a life-affirming legacy to our children and grandchildren if we love them—because we are but one strand in the web of life and all those other strands are equally precious to our Creator—because “God so loves the world” (in John 3: 16 the word translated “world” is “cosmos” in Greek) and through Christ has destined creation for healing and redemption—because we cannot find our place in the heart of God without first finding our place in creation which is precious to our Maker. Gratitude, humility, and joy require a far better witness from us than we have so far been willing to muster. And should we choose not to respond, who, what, and when are we?