On the Interconnectedness of All of Life: An Ecology of Oneness in the Tanna d’bei Eliyahu

Image: Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) mycelium growing in a petri dish on coffee grounds by Tobi Kellner (License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

I want to share one of the most beautiful Jewish ecology quotes I learned while reading through the curricular material while teaching at Teva Learning Center in (now Teva Learning Alliance) in the fall of 2010. The quote:

The whole world of humans, animals, fish, and birds all depend on one another. All drink the earth’s water, breathe the earth’s air, and find their food in what was created on the earth. All share the same destiny.

It was so beautiful I wanted to do some fact-checking to determine if this was a literal or a more creative translation and also to understand its context. Some detective work was in order. The source on the sheet I found it said it was from Tanna Debe Eliyahu, an early collection of midrash completed in the 10th century. Some other books and articles I found referenced the quote in Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah 2, which I took for chapter 2. I looked and found the quote at the end of chapter 1. [From Tanna d’ebei Eliyahu, end of Chapter 1. Translation is by William G. Braude and Israel J. Kapstein (JPS 1981).]

פעם אחת הייתי מהלך בכרך גדול שבעולם. והייתה שם תשחורת. ותפסוני והכניסוני בבית המלך. וראיתי שם מטות מוצעות וכלי כסף וכלי זהב שמונחין.‏

One day as I was walking through the greatest city of the world [Ctessiphon, capital of the Sassanids — Braude and Kapstein], there was a roundup and I was roughly seized and brought into the king’s house where I saw divans lavishly spread and silver vessels and gold vessels set out [in great number].

אמרתי אל נקמות ה׳ אל נקמות הופיע (תהלים צ״ד א׳).‏

So, [in resentment of having been seized], I said, The power of vengeance, the power of vengeance, O Lord, shine forth (Ps. 94:1).

בא אלי חבר אחד ואמר לי. סופר אתה. אמרתי לו. מהשהוא. אמר לי. אם תאמר לי דבר זה שאני אומר [לך] לך לשלום. אמרתי לו. אמור.‏

Presently a Persian (Zoroastrian) priest came to me and asked me, “Are you a scholar?” I replied, “A bit of a one.” He said, “If you can answer the particular question I am about to ask, you may go in peace.” I replied, “Ask.”

אמר לי [מפני מה ברא אלוה שקצים ורמשים.‏

He then asked “Why did God create loathsome reptiles and creeping things?”

אמרתי לו]. אלהים דיין הוא. אלהים קדוש וצדיק וחסיד ואמת הוא לעולם ולעלמי עולמים. ומכיר בראש ובסוף. ומגיד מראשית אחרית. ומקדם אשר לא נעשה יודע מה שנעשה ומה שעתיד להיעשות. וצופה לטובה ואין צופה לרעה. ועשיר ושמח בחלקו. ובחכמתו ובתבונתו ברא עולמו והכינו. ואחר כך ברא את האדם והביאו לעולם. ולא בראו אלא על מנת שיעבדנו בלב שלם. ולמצוא קורת רוח ממנו ומתולדותיו הבאות אחריו עד סוף כל הדורות. וכיון שפרה ורבה זה עובד לחמה וללבנה וזה עובד לעץ ולאבן. ובכל יום ויום מתחייבין כלה לפניו. כשהוא חוזר ומסתכל בכל מעשה ידיו שברא בעולמו אמר. לאילו חיים ולאילו חיים לאילו נשמות ולאילו נשמות לאילו אכילה ושתייה ולאילו אכילה ושתייה. הרי הן חשובין כבהמה ובחייה וכשאר שקצים ורמשים שברא הקב״ה על פני האדמה. מיד נתקררה דעתו ואין מכלה אותם. הא למדת שלא נבראו שקצים ורמשים בעולם אלא רפואה לבני אדם על הארץ:‏

I replied: “God is a judge who is indeed holy and just, but He is also loving because He is perceptive [of man’s condition] for ever and ever and ever. He knows both beginning and end, and can tell from the beginning what the end of anything is to be long, long before it has been made; though He knows what has been made and what is yet to be made, still [in whatever is made] He chooses to see the good and chooses not to see the evil. Thus, because He is content with His portion, He is rich. In His wisdom and with His understanding He created His world and set it on its foundation. Then He created Adam and brought him into the world. And He created him for no other purpose than to serve Him with a whole heart and He would thus find contentment in him and in his descendants after him until the end of all generations. But then after Adam complied with the command to be fruitful and multiply, one [descendant] worshiped the sun and the moon, another worshiped wood and stone, and thus every day Adam’s descendants came to be deemed by Him as deserving annihilation. Nevertheless, upon considering all the work of His hands in the world of His creation, God said: These—[human beings]—have life, and those—[other creatures]—have life. These have breath and those have breath; these have desire for food and drink, and those have desire for food and drink. Human beings ought to be deemed as important as cattle, as beasts, at least as important as the variety of loathsome reptiles and creeping things which I created upon the earth. At once He felt some measure of contentment and resolved not to annihilate mankind. And so you see that reptiles and creeping things were created in the world as a means of mankind’s preservation.”

אמר לי. אתם אומרים אש אינה אלוה מפני מה כתיב בתורתכם אש תמיד (ויקרא ו׳ ו׳).‏

Then the Persian priest brought up another matter saying, “You assert that fire is not God. Yet is it not written in your Torah fire eternal (Lev 6:6)?”

אמרתי לו. בני כשעמדו אבותינו על הר סיני לקבל עליהן תורה לא ראו לא דמות אדם ולא דמות כל ברייה ולא דמות כל נשמה שברא הקב״ה על פני האדמה. שנאמר ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם כי לא ראיתם כל תמונה ביום (דברים ד׳ טי׳׳ו). אלא אלהים אחד. הוא אלהי האלהים ואדוני האדונים (שם י׳ י״ו) שמלכותו קיימת בשמים ובארץ ובשמי השמים העליונים. ואתם אומרים אש אלוה הוא. אינה אלא כשבט. שנתנה לתשמיש לבני אדם על הארץ. משלו משל למה הדבר דומה. למלך בשר ודם שנטל את הרצועה ותלאה בתוך ביתו. אמר להן לבניו ולעבדיו ולבני ביתו. בזה אני מכה אתכם ובזה אני מלקה אתכם ובזה אני הורג אתכם. כדי שיחזרו בהם ויעשו תשובה. אם לא עשו תשובה ולא חזרו בם. בה מכה אותם ובה מלקה אותם ובה הורג אותם. לכך נאמר אש תמיד. ואומר כי באש ה׳ נשפט (ישעיה ס״ו ט״ז)‏

I replied: “My son, when our forebears stood at Mount Sinai to accept the Torah for themselves, they saw no form resembling a human being, nor resembling the form of any creature, nor resembling the form of anything that has breath which the Holy One created on the face of the earth, as is said, Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves—for ye saw no manner of form on the day that the Lord spoke unto you in Horeb (Deut. 4:15); they saw only God, the one God—He is God of gods and Lord of lords (Deut. 10:17)—whose kingdom endures in heaven and on earth as well as in the highest heaven of heavens. And yet you say that God is fire! Fire is no more than a rod to be used upon men on earth. Its use is to be understood by the parable of a king who took a lash and hung it up in his house and then said to his children, to his servants, and to the members of his household, ‘With this lash I may strike you, may smite you, may even kill you’—threatening them, so that in penitence they would turn away from sin. If they do not repent, do not turn back, then God says, I will have to strike them with the lash, will have to smite them, will even have to kill them.’ Hence fire eternal is to be read in the light of the verse For by fire will the Lord threaten judgment (Isa. 66:16).”

יכול אתה להשיבני ולומר לי. כי ה׳ אלהיך אש אוכלה (דברים ד׳ כ׳ד). אבל משלו משל. למה הדבר דומה. למלך בשר ודם שלא היו [בניו] עבדיו ובני ביתו נוהגין כשורה. אמר לבניו ולעבדיו ולבני ביתו. דוב אורב אני עליכם. ארי אני עליכם. מלאך המות אני עליכם מפני דרכיכן. לכך נאמר כי ה׳ אלהיך אש אוכלה הוא:‏

Of course you might attempt to refute me by quoting the words The Lord thy God is a devouring fire (Deut. 4:24). But a parable will explain the intent of these words. The children, servants, and members of the household of a mortal king did not behave properly. So he said to his children, to his servants, and to the members of his household, “Because of your ways I will growl at you like a bear, roar at you like a lion, seem to be coming at you like the angel of death.” Such is the intent of The Lord thy God is a devouring fire.

The entire portion in which the quote derives in a polemic against a dualistic worldview, and in particular, the worldview of Zoroastrianism (or perhaps the dark gnosticism of Manichaenism). Comparison of the quote above to the source text below shows that the quote is literal up to the last part, “All share the same destiny” which is a creative way of summarizing the lesson of the midrash rather than a translation per se.

Just one short reflection… this text also seems related to Rabbi Yoḥanan’s prayer which states, following Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that “the difference between man and beast is nought because all is הבל (hevel).” Artscroll translates hevel as vanity, but hevel has the connotation of fleeting like a breath, and so it is interesting to me that in the midrashic source below, the difference between human and non-human creatures is indeed made equal on the basis of our common breath.

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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