Noah & "Dominion" over the Earth

Ellen Bernstein

This coming Shabbat, October 24, 2009, hundreds of thousands of people in 158 countries around the globe will be participating in the International Day of Climate Action. They will try to convince world leaders to craft policies to help bring atmospheric concentrations of CO2 down to 350 parts per million—the figure that scientists say is the safe upper limit for CO2 in the atmosphere, the amount that will enable life to continue to thrive on the planet.

While the folks at, the organizers for the event, did not have a Jewish calendar in front of them when they determined the date for what will be the largest ecological event in the world’s history, it is an uncanny co-incidence that they chose the moment that we Jews read in our annual Torah cycle, Parshat Noah. The Noah story, more than any other in the Torah, proclaims a profound ecological message that resounds through time and space.

Many of us fondly remember Noah as the unlikely sea-faring zoo-keeper who saved all the animals from the flood, but there is much more to the story. In Genesis 1, after God had completed the creation, we read, “God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good.” (Gen. 1.31) Yet just a few generations later, in Noah’s time, we read a parallel statement: “God saw the earth and behold it had become corrupt.”(Gen. 6.12) Corruption, we learn, happened because the earth was filled with ¬hamas. (Gen. 6.11)
What is the meaning of hamas? Proverbs teaches
“A lawless man (eish hamas) misleads his friend,
making him take the path of no good (derekh lo-tov) .”(Proverbs 16.29)

Hamas then is associated with the path of no-goodness. The beautiful and good world that God had created in the beginning had disintegrated into a world of no-goodness. A world in which--we are told—the heart/mind of humanity was fixed only on evil all the time (Gen. 6.5).

How did humanity arrive at such a dreadful state? What was God’s original design for the human species? And why did the people abandon their path, their highest calling--causing God so much anguish that He had no choice but to wash away the world and begin again?

We learn in Genesis 1.28 that God gave humanity dominion over the animals and all the earth. Exercising dominion would be humanity’s most sublime purpose—the path people must walk in order to maintain a good, peaceful and sustainable world. To have dominion over the earth and her creatures means to govern in a way that allows each creation to fulfill its God-given purpose. To have dominion means to care for the world every moment of every day; to fix our attention on the goodness of the world; to allow the world to unfold in her own infinitely wise ways; to see the world as a gift and a blessing and rejoice in her majesty, diversity, and fruitfulness.

“To exercise dominion” then is profoundly difficult—it is and has always been humanity’s greatest challenge. From Adam to Noah to us—we have avoided this challenge. Most of us do not want to have to put the world first and ourselves second, as dominion demands.

The tragic Biblical truth is that when humanity avoids its responsibility to the earth, to the other--either in Noah’s generation or in ours—when we focus too much on our selves and neglect the world, we create suffering and pain; and we drag the rest of the world down with us. There is no escaping this ecological reality. We are all bound up together—dependent upon one another in one complex and beautiful web: the earth, the waters, the algae, fungi, spiders, black bears and us. That humanity is the most powerful of creatures means that we are all the more responsible.

While we may feel overwhelmed and helpless by today’s environmental crisis, we must not sink into despair. Noah’s story ends in hope with one of the most beautiful and poignant lines of the entire Bible:
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will not cease.

Today in honor of Noah and the earth and the International Day of Climate Action, lets re-dedicate ourselves to the path of goodness and to the care for the earth, our home. Visit to join with others around the world in this most profound endeavor.

Ellen Bernstein founded the first national Jewish environmental organization, Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth and is author of several books on Judaism and ecology. Visit


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