It is taught that the Schools of Hillel and Shammai were locked in a fierce debate, which raged on for two and a half years. The School of Shammai asserted that it would have been better for the world if humanity had never been created. God should have stopped with the animals. The School of Hillel took the opposite view that it is better that humanity was created. In the end, they reached a decision: “It would have been better if humanity had not been created, but now that we are here, let us examine our deeds.” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b)
The most powerful exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre is the first one. Visitors walk down a very long hallway to reach the rest of the museum. The hallway shows the timeline of Planet Earth. Four and a half billion years of evolution. Rock and heat. Water and soil. Noble trees. And eventually, at the very end of the very long hallway, animals and human beings come on the scene, a geological afterthought.
It could be that the earth was getting along just fine without us. It could be that the mountains and seas, trees and species of all kinds were better off without us, latecomers. Are we so self-centric that we believe we are the culmination of creation? God’s grand finale? The ultimate pinnacle of life on earth?
Against the timeline of this planet, not to mention this solar system, we human beings have just arrived. For the time that we are here, we should consider the wisdom of that great Talmudic debate. The majority view is honest about our human capacity for destruction, even in the shadow of Divine construction. The prevailing voice of our Sages does not pretend that we are good for the earth, but that “here we are!” As evidence of God’s great imagination, we have arrived. And as evidence of God’s great goodness, we did not arrive empty-handed. “Let us examine our deeds.” We have been given Torah and mitzvot to guide our way, if we will it. From the very beginning, we are told, God gave instruction. In that first world-garden, Adam is commanded to “till and tend,” to “work and watch over,” to “serve and protect” the earth. (Genesis 2:15) When we do, we show ourselves worthy of having been created. When we do, we earn another point for Hillel’s good faith in humanity.
Aware of our flaws and our finitude, let us “examine our deeds” with honesty. Humble in the shade of the trees we depend upon for our very breath, let us take up the noble responsibility of planning and planting for our future, which God willing, will be long on this green earth.