The story of the creation of the world in the first chapter of the book of Genesis includes what might very well be the first job description.
Since, however, it’s not for a job, but a life’s mission, it probably isn’t a job description at all.
And if it’s not a description of tasks for a position of employment, we could call the first man and the first woman the first ever volunteers.
There seems to have been little arm twisting in the first chapter of Genesis. The chapter describes the newly-created man, not yet named Adam, and the woman, not yet named Eve, receiving a charge from God.
Their life’s volunteer mission began with God’s blessing, as God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and tame it; hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, and over every animal that creeps on the earth.”
In this translation, fortunately, the Hebrew word “V’CHIVSHUHA” is translated as “tame.” Many Bibles say “subdue.” Literally, the word could mean “conquer.” For at least 2500 years, this word has been in this text, and it’s a strong one.
Does the Hebrew word mean to overcome by force? Or does it mean to bring something under control? One English definition of “subdue” explains that it can mean to cultivate. It can also mean to “tone down.” One Webster definition of “tame” is “to reduce from a state of native wildness especially so as to be tractable and useful to humans.”
It is what comes after the Hebrew word in question that may help us define the what that word really means here. God was setting up these new human beings and their descendants to be responsible for the earth, the entire earth. It was an overwhelming task. And it was God doing the asking. How could they say no?
But what did God’s charge really mean? There are some who say that this passage gives us members of the human race license to do whatever we want to do with the world. But Judaism says, “not so fast!” Modern commentator Richard Elliot Friedman explains that just because the Bible says that human beings should subdue and rule the earth doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be GOOD rulers! Bible scholar Aviva Gottleib Zornberg interpreted this verse to mean that we should serve “as the earth’s custodians, by changing, controlling and improving the environment.”
That goes along with the rabbinic midrash that describes God taking Adam around the Garden of Eden to orient him to the natural realm. God told him, “See how beautiful all my creations are. Everything has been created for your sake. Think about this, and take care not to destroy my world. For if you do, there will be none to repair it after you.”
This passage notes that, on day six, God saw what had been created as not just “good” as it had said before on the previous days of creation. At this point, after the first appearance of humanity, the world was, in God’s eyes, “very good.”
That definition of the status of creation set a standard for the task awaiting the human family. If God gave us a world that is “very good,” we need to teach future leaders and global citizens how to preserve the world as a “very good place.”
That goes for leadership on a smaller scale as well. In organizations like religious congregations and their affiliate groups, there are generations of leadership. There are some leaders who are new, and there are some who have led in the past and come back again to take on a new position of enhancing and enlivening the holy community to which they belong. The challenge of taking any position of leadership is knowing what is expected of you, when you are charged to preserve and maintain, and when you are asked to create something new that will have the possibility of gaining a life of its own that new leaders will sustain in the years to come.
I believe it’s important for Temple leaders to be installed when they begin their service in their new position and then to take part in this ceremony as long as they continue to serve. With each passing year, we gain experience and wisdom and perhaps even increased energy and enthusiasm for our tasks. With each new year, the world may look a little different than before because we have grown, and it is through those new eyes that we view fresh possibilities that lie before us.
Sometimes we, as leaders or volunteers, may think that we need to do everything at once. All right, so God seems to have done everything at once, but, even for God, the world was not created in a day. Sometimes, if we accomplish only one part of a larger task, we are making progress.
One of my favorite stories about how even the small things we do matter is about a man who was walking along a beach covered with starfish that had been left high and dry by the receding tide. He saw a girl on the beach, picking up starfish one by one and throwing them back into the ocean. “What do you think you are doing?” the man asked the girl. She said, “I am saving the starfish!” The man replied, “On this beach alone there must be tens of thousands of starfish, not to mention the tens of thousands of miles of beaches around the world with just as many starfish. How can you possibly make a difference?” The girl picked up another starfish, looked the man straight in the eye, and hurled it far out into the sea. Looking back at the man, she said, “Made a difference to that one, didn’t it?”
Every single act that makes a difference can improve our community and make an impact on the entire world. One of my favorite coffee mugs at home says as much: “To the world, you may be one person. But to one person, you may be the world.” May the new worlds we fashion with our spirit and creativity bring goodness and blessing to us all, here within these walls, and always extending out to the world around us.