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Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Myth of Overpopulation

Daf Yomi Gittin 41

After downgrading Pluto a couple of years ago, scientist announced this week that they may have found a replacement ninth planet.  Nothing is certain yet in terms of the exact nature of their discovery.  But one thing’s for sure: in no time, the government will announce investments of billions of dollars into equipment and spacecraft that will investigate this exciting find!

Why are we so obsessed with exploring and understanding the far reaches of outer space?

One who is part servant and partly emancipated works for his master one day and works for himself the next day, according to Beis Hillel. 
Beis Shamai says: You have remedied the needs of his master, but not his own needs.  He may not marry a maidservant, since he is partly emancipated.  He may not marry a freewoman, since he is part servant.  Should he not get married?  But was the world not created so that we should be fruitful and multiply?  As the verse states, “It was not created to be desolate; it was made to be inhabited!”  And so, for the sake of tikkun olam, we force the master to emancipate him.  He should write a bill of emancipation for to release his other half.
Beis Hillel conceded to the opinion of Beis Shamai. 

Back in the seventies, theories of earth’s overpopulation began to abound.  Having too many children was touted as a selfish drain on Earth’s limited resources.  Birth rates dropped dramatically, with most western countries seeing the average not even reaching replacement levels – in other words, nowadays most families have less than two kids.  Does the world have limited resources?

Not according to our tradition.  As the prophet Isaiah declares, “It was not created to be desolate; it was made to be inhabited!”  You know what causes a depletion of resources?  A depletion of people!  When human beings disappear, the earth dries up.

Our greatest example, of course, is the Land of Israel, which lay desolate for over a dozen centuries.   In the nineteenth century, Mark Twain visited Israel and famously described it as “a desolate country . . . given over wholly to weeds . . . a silent mournful expanse . . .  we never saw a human being on the whole route . . . hardly a tree or shrub anywhere.  Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”

And then the aliyot (immigration) to Israel began, and slowly but surely, the desert began to bloom.   Israel is a modern-day ‘miracle’ – a country transformed from an uninhabitable wasteland to one of the most beautiful places in the world!  You see, resources are not depleted due to human inhabitation; resources shrivel up and are depleted to the absence of human inhabitation! 

The thing is, we have no idea about the potential this Earth has to offer.  We used to joke that Hashem promised us the only country in the region without natural resources – every other country has billions of barrels of oil just waiting to be extracted.  Poor Israel – we had to rely on our human capital.  Until one day, we suddenly discovered massive natural gas reserves off the coast of Haifa!

Our world isn’t disappearing anytime soon.  There is more than enough to go around for millions and billions of years to come.  We haven’t begun to scratch the surface of understanding our world.  How many kilometres into the Earth’s core have we dug?  What do we know about the great sea-beds of the world?  We are so tragically clueless that we failed to find MH-370, the Malaysian airliner that disappeared just a couple of years ago!  That’s how far we still have yet to go in terms of exploring our planet.  It doesn’t mean we should abuse our resources, G-d forbid; but we mustn’t question the Almighty’s ability to feed the planet, as long as we treat it properly.

The problem is that we don’t bother trying to understand what Earth has to offer.  We’re more interested in exploring the vast expanses of the universe.  We invest billions into space research when we have no idea about our own planet!  Why do we care whether or not a ninth planet exists?

The answer was provided a century and a half ago by the great Rebbe of Kotzk.  He would say, “When I was young, I thought I could change the world.  As I got older, I thought at least I could change my country.  A little older yet, and I would have been happy to change my city, or my community.  Now, I realize that I will be lucky if I am able to change myself!”

Exploring outer space is a wonderful distraction from the here and now.   You don’t need to worry about making this world a better place when you’re occupied with the lofty goals of expanding our knowledge of the universe!  Unfortunately, such escapist attitudes aren’t helpful.  We need investment in this world, financial and emotional.  Let’s figure out our own planet before we try to solve the mysteries of the rest of the galaxy!

There’s more than enough to feed billions upon billions of earthlings.   As we do our part to inhabit our planet, the Almighty will do His part to provide.  Meanwhile, we must strive to understand and work on ourselves, our communities, our cities and our countries.  May you merit a lifetime of real impact on the people and places that are close to you and truly matter!

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