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The Natural Order

The Natural Order

Approaching the boundaries of nature with trepidation.


“Caution is a most valuable asset in fishing, especially if you are the fish.”

The author of this clever truism, whose identity has been lost to posterity, probably had no idea just how right he was. A lack of caution, it now seems, has endangered a $7 billion dollar-a-year industry.

After the sighting of a single Asian carp this past June, everyone from the National Wildlife Federation to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is close to panic. These giant carp, originally imported to control the spread of algae in Arkansas fish farms, escaped into the Mississippi River during the great flood of 1993 and have been steadily making their way northward.

The last line of defense has been a man-made canal built a century ago to link the Mississippi River with the Great Lakes. By running electric current through this narrow waterway, officials believed they could block the progress of the invasive fish. Now they are not so sure.

Able to eat 40 percent of their body weight each day and lacking any natural predators, the Asian carp can grow to over a hundred pounds and four feet in length, crowding out smaller fish and thereby threatening the survival of the fishing industry. Some argue that the only remaining solution is to shut the Chicago area shipping locks, thereby shutting down commercial traffic as well. A judge’s decision is currently pending.

Delicate Balance

Who would have thought that a few fish could ever cause such a tumult?

The Torah Sages of antiquity, of course.

In the narrative of Creation, the Torah records that “God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of waters He called seas” (Genesis 1:10). The Sages wonder why the waters of our planet, which are contiguous and therefore might be considered one single ocean, are designated in the plural. They answer that the Torah wishes to teach us that “the taste of the fish from the waters of Sidon (western Asia) is not similar to the taste of fish from the waters of Spain.” In other words, each sea – and consequently, the fish that come from it – has its own distinct character.

The fish of each sea has a distinct character.

The subtlety of Biblical Hebrew suggests a deeper layer of meaning. The word for “taste” – ta’am – also means “reason” or “judgment.” These faculties of intellectual discernment are the means through which we are able to recognize and respect the boundaries of nature (and more abstractly, the boundaries between right and wrong). Accordingly, we can understand that the Torah is providing a lesson in appreciating the delicate balance of nature, and a warning against violating the boundaries designed to protect the natural order of our world.

The Asian carp is only the most recent example of relocated species gone wild. The European rabbit, introduced to Australia in 1859, has reached a population of over 200 million, necessitating the construction of a 2,000-mile-long rabbit-proof fence to prevent the wholesale destruction of farmlands. In 1956, African bees brought over by Brazilian scientists to breed for honey production escaped their quarantine and gave rise to the noted “killer bee” scare.

In 1884, a farmer visiting the Cotton States Exposition in Louisiana brought back a few Venezuelan water hyacinths to decorate the fountain outside his home in Florida. Today, the aggressive purple flowers choke 126,000 acres of waterways. Kudzu, a Japanese vine imported in 1876 to prevent erosion, in currently spreading through the southern United States and expanding at a rate of 150,000 acres a year.

The list goes on and on. In the United States alone, containment costs of invasive species are estimated at $138 billion annually.

Related Article: Is Stem Cell Research Ethical?

Forbidden Mixtures

By definition, the law of unintended consequences is a principle that can be appreciated only in hindsight. We cannot anticipate every outcome of any action, particularly when we dare to impose our vision of a better world upon the natural order we have inherited from our Creator. Sometimes human dabbling in nature produces obvious benefits, like the tangerine and the mule. Occasionally, science finds solutions that provide immeasurable joy, as it has by developing cures for diseases and procedures such as in vitro fertilization. But experience has proven repeatedly that violation of the boundaries of nature should be approached with circumspection and trepidation.

Active and passive inclinations struggle within our hearts.

This explains why Torah law includes numerous types of forbidden mixtures. The laws of shatnez, which disallows combining wool and linen in a single garment, and the prohibition against any mixture of milk and meat, both derive from the need to respect the boundaries between the animal and plant kingdoms, which respectively symbolize the active and passive inclinations that struggle against one another within hearts of men. It may have been with this idea in mind that King Solomon observed, “There is… a time to be silent, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7).

Similarly, the Torah prohibits hitching an ox and donkey together to pull one’s cart, and prohibits planting different varieties of fruit trees in a single orchard. Certain kabbalists have gone so far as to avoid interlacing the fingers of the left hand (symbolizing the divine attribute of justice) with the fingers of the right hand (symbolizing divine mercy). Every such example contains a unique insight into acquiring respect for the integrity of nature’s laws and limitations.

Nature itself forces us to take stock of the damage we have caused to our world through careless disregard for the boundaries of Creation. At the same time, it compels us to consider that the moral and spiritual boundaries that govern civilized society are no more variable or inconstant than the laws that define the physical universe. If we take these warnings to heart, we can look forward to a future that is more ordered and defined, more stable and more secure. And that is nothing to carp about.

December 4, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Anonymous, December 19, 2010 5:55 AM

To Tova- your ideas are incorrect and unJewish

Tova, your ideas are not what Hashem wants of us. One of the basic mitzvohs is Pru Urvu Umilu es Haaretz- Be fruitful and multiply. It doesn't say anything about depleting nature, but it does say in the Torah not to do shatnes and kilayim. G-d made the world and the Torah is His instruction booklet, not one made up by Al Gore and the liberal media. If you follow His instructions, He'll make sure there is enough to sustain the world. And for those who are worried about it, most of the world is taking birth control pills quite extensively, except for the Arabs so if anything next generation will have a smaller population. A few extra (Orthodox) Jews won't deplete the planet if that's what you are worried about.

(5) Jewish Mom, December 16, 2010 11:50 AM

One more comment

People certainly contribute to nature and are not just takers. Our Jewish sources say that there would be no rain and thus no growth if man were not to pray for rain, as is described in Genesis. Man is the purpose of creation without which there is no need for plant or animal life. The world was created for man's use, not abuse. We contribute to nature by elevating it to achieve its intended purpose to serve man constructively, not distructively. So yes, you are certainly correct that we should be environmentally aware. My husband, a respected Torah scholar, bends down to pick up discarded plastic bottles in the street to place them in the designated recycling bins.

(4) Jewish Mom, December 16, 2010 11:45 AM

Tova, we need Jewish babies

Tova, Hashem is not asking Jews to practice birth control. You are sadly mistaken. Jewish babies are not what is causing imbalance and endangering Planet Earth. We Jews have been repeatedly decimated throughout the centuries; most recently, Hitler murdered more than 1.2 million Jewish children. Far more are being lost these days as a result of abortion and intermarriage thus preventing Jewish babies from coming into existence. Jewish women: please do have as many babies as you have the strength and courage to bear and raise!! And be sure to raise them with Jewish awareness and thus continue the golden chain of the Jewish people. That is surely Hashem's will, NOT birth control!

(3) Tova Saul, December 13, 2010 7:42 AM

Thank you Ruth Housman....just 1 thing....

Ruth, those were beautiful words, thanks. Just 1 thing.....People are not a part of nature, which is a conceptual mistake that so many well-meaning people make. In nature, organisms in ecosystems give and take, functioning independently of humans like a symphony orchestra with absolutely no need of humans. Hashem created people in such a way that we stand distinct from nature, and above it. We only take, and Hashem is expecting us to use our free will to keep our demands on nature to a minimum. Until now, however, humans act to consume all that they can, and their destructive numbers are burgeoning exponentially.

(2) ruth housman, December 12, 2010 3:16 PM

fishing lines

Yes, we must realize there is a delicate balance of nature, and we must respect the sanctity of all beating hearts on this planet. If we acted as if we were living in a sensate universe, a universe of feeling, wherever we are, surely we would act in ways that were about love. We cannot always know how to balance our lives and Nature, and we are deeply part of Nature. What we must do is realize this, and then, in making decisions, realizing lives do depend on the balance, of consequences on either side of the equation, we do know we walk in the gray area, because ethical decisions mostly reside in this area. To combine our gray matter with matters of heart, is the only ethical way to make decisions, and it is in the angst of such decisions where we find G_d. I am glad for an article dealing with environmental concerns because I don't see many on Aish and have written extensively about this. I could say, it might be important for us to exercise some time, in thinking about how we could individually and collectively, as Jews and peoples of the World, act in ways that are sacred, to preserve life on this planet, meaning all life!

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