Rabbi Elazar taught in the name of Rabbi Hanina: "Devoted students of the Sages increase well-being in the world, as it is said (Isa. 54:13), And all your children shall be disciples of the LORD, and great shall be the well-being (shalom) of your children. Do not read [the second mention of] 'your children (banayikh)' [as the first], but rather as 'your builders' (bonayikh)."
"Those who love Your teaching enjoy well-being (shalom); they encounter no adversity" (Ps. 119:165). "May there be well-being (shalom) within your ramparts, tranquility in your citadels. For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being (shalom); for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good" (Ps. 122:7–9). "May the LORD grant strength to His people; may the LORD bestow on His people well-being (shalom)" (Ps. 29:11).
Over the past few weeks, while traveling through Colorado on an outreach trip for The Jewish Theological Seminary, I saw the message above come alive in a profound way. I heard learners of various ages engage each other in conversation about the well-being of our bodies, our planet, and Judaism. Those encounters over Torah study reminded me of how deeply important it is to see ourselves as fundamentally interconnected with our natural environment and strongly rooted in our faith tradition.
The midrash above interprets one verse from this week's reading as describing how Torah learning can cultivate a sense of wholeness among those who experience sacred text study. The rabbinic rereading above of a biblical term transforms children from "disciples of the LORD" to the builders of our people. Franz Rosenzweig, the modern German-Jewish philosopher (1886–1929), in explaining the meaning of this midrash, wrote that
this is the very basis of our communal and individual life: the feeling of being our fathers' children, our grandchildren's ancestors. Therefore we may rightly expect to find ourselves again, at some time, somehow in our fathers' every word and deed; and also that our own words and deeds will have some meaning for our grandchildren. For we are, as Scripture puts it, "children"; we are, as tradition reads it, "Builders." (Franz Rosenzweig, On Jewish Learning; ed., N. N. Glatzer, p. 91)
During a recent Shabbat at the inaugural Ramah Outdoor Adventure program, I facilitated a discussion among teens and staff about finding new meaning in our parents' traditions. They shared insights about physically and spiritually constructing a new kind of camp community that is founded upon the principles of Conservative Judaism, and of environmental responsibility. During the following week in Aspen, I heard young grandparents and parents of college-age children reflect on what kind of legacy they hope to leave as ancestors to future generations of American Jews. Their attention, similarly, turned both to the values we have inherited and the inspiration we find in nature's beauty.
In appreciating the richness of our heritage and the magnificence of nature, let us commit ourselves to preserving these invaluable gifts by faithfully transforming our Jewish communities and institutions to respond to the demands of environmental sustainability. The well-being of all Creation depends upon us.