The drive from Bozeman, Montana to Yellowstone National Park is literally through Paradise — Paradise Valley, that is. The Absaroka Mountain Range rises nearly 6,000 feet above the Yellowstone River as it weaves its way through Montana and Wyoming for over 670 miles. The sky is a deep blue and cotton ball clouds litter this heavenly landscape, making me feel as if I am inside a photograph. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place in the world than where I am right now until I come to the entrance of Yellowstone National Park and begin to wind my way through the mountains and valleys of this 3,471 square mile national treasure.
From the valleys literally where “the deer and the antelope play,” to the thundering waterfalls, steaming geysers and bubbling mudpots, the park overwhelms you with its primal, incessant beauty.
But you can’t really experience the awesomeness of this place behind the steering wheel so I park my car in a pullout in the Lamar Valley just in time to see a large black bear foraging in the grass for food. It’s almost dusk and there are only a handful of tourists witnessing this sight with me. We understand the uniqueness of the moment, the treat we have been given to see a bear in nature, undisturbed and yet protected.
Jewish tradition gives us a wonderful opportunity to stop and be present to the awe and beauty of nature by reciting blessings that celebrate the natural world. Upon seeing large-scale wonders like oceans, mountains, waterfalls and rivers, we say: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, oseh maasei v’reishit. (We praise You, God, Sovereign of the universe, Who makes the works of creation.)
On seeing smaller things such as beautiful trees, wild animals, fields of flowers and even people we are happy to see, we say: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, shekacha lo beolamo. (We praise You, God, Sovereign of the universe, that such as these are in Your world.)
At a time when many Americans think that so much is wrong with our country, we do well to remember the many things about our country of which we can be proud. Our National Park System, created more than 100 years ago, is certainly one of them.
The National Park System grew out of the inspiration and dedication of leaders, artists, naturalists and philanthropists like Teddy Roosevelt, Charlie Russell, Ansel Adams, John Muir and John D. Rockefeller. In 1916, Congress created the federal agency that manages all of our national parks and monuments and is responsible for the administration, protection and use of the 417 designated sites that are included within it, of which 60 are national parks. The mission of the NPS is to promote and regulate the use of these lands, conserve the scenery and wildlife, provide for their current enjoyment and leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. But the tension between maintaining and protecting these lands and using and enjoying them is an ongoing one that requires continuing vigilance, financial resources and commitment.
Judaism has a lot to say about establishing a balance between using the resources we have and over-using and destroying them. The Torah begins by telling us the two purposes for which man was created. In Genesis 1: 28 we learn that man was put on the earth to “fill it and conquer/subdue it.” In Genesis 2:15, our divine purpose is “to work it (the Garden of Eden) and to guard it.” From the beginning of time, we have faced the challenge of managing these two opposing ideas: the obligation to use our environment for our own needs while preserving and protecting it.
The Talmud refines this challenge by teaching us an important principle: we can use the earth for our needs but we cannot use any resource needlessly. That maxim is helpful in analyzing environmental issues today because it demands that we ask ourselves this question: Are there alternatives to using, altering and developing our land and resources that will minimize the impact on our environment such that we don’t destroy our resources unnecessarily in accomplishing our goals? Bringing that concept into our daily lives, can we make decisions that reduce the impact on the environment in the ways we eat, drive, work, live and acquire and distribute goods and services?
The National Park System is a testimony to our commitment, as Americans, to protect and conserve hundreds of thousands of acres of national beauty and historic and cultural sites. We should be incredibly proud of what we have created and motivated to visit the many wonderful parks and monuments that exist throughout the country. But the balance between protecting and safeguarding these lands and using and regulating them for our enjoyment is one that requires our continuing dedication and support so that our children and grandchildren will be able to sing the praises of “America, the beautiful” for generations to come.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at www.amyhirshberglederman.com.