God said to Noah, I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. (Bereishit 6:13) 

The Rabbis taught: The world was created with ten utterances. What does this teach us? Couldnt the world have been created in one utterance? Rather, it was in order to exact justice upon the wicked, who destroy the world that was created in ten utterances, and to reward the righteous who support and protect the world that was created in ten utterances. (Avot 5, 1) 

The world was created with care and attention; with God speaking ten times, i.e., “let there be light…. let there be a firmament….” It could have been created in just one, with less care for each aspect of it. Its inherent preciousness is the reason why those who support it are to be rewarded, and those who destroy it suffer the consequences.  

While it is clear that some of the fundamental technologies and economic infrastructure of modern human society are destructive, and can lead to “an end to all flesh,” and that we are beginning to suffer the consequences, it is not true that each of us who leaves a large carbon footprint is “wicked” and deserve punishment. If we look at the basic premise of Divine reward and punishment in this literal way, we are left with the conundrum of theodicy: Why do bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people?  

There is a more meaningful lesson to draw from this principle of reward and punishment if we see this as a psycho-spiritual issue. When we engage in meaningful work, we reap the rewards of a greater senses of fulfillment, or of self-worth. When we give loving attention to others, the depth of the relationship enriches and warms us. When we know other people well, not simply in a calculating and utilitarian way, but for their good and for the value of who they are, we see them as fully alive. When people are grateful to us, and we know that we have earned that gratitude, a unique happiness results. Loving and being loved produce joy and fulfillment. Conversely, when we are self-centered, when we harm others, we become colder, crueler people. The depths of real joy cease to be available to us. The world loses its beauty and value.  These unfulfilled needs become voids, which we try to fill through self-centered pleasure, power, or rage. 

Notice the part of the Shma that discusses Divine reward and punishment. Devarim 11:13-20 describes God saying I will stop the sky and there will be no rain and the land will not give its bounty, and you will quickly perish from the good land that I give you as a consequence for turning away from God. The rewards of prosperity and fulfillment come from loving the core of existence, and acting upon that love. Fundamental to our way of seeing the world and everyone in it must be love “with all our hearts and all our life-breath and with all our might” of not just the world, but the most fundamental essence of what is.  

The opposite of cynicism isn’t naiveté, it’s depth.  

Shabbat shalom! 

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