This past summer, my family spent a few days in the picturesque town of Petoskey in northern Michigan. While there, we were advised to visit a certain nature reserve just a short drive out of town, which had a path leading to a secluded beach on Lake Michigan. We weren’t disappointed by the spectacular view which awaited us, but it was the large sand dunes which really caught my eye.
We stood on a large wooden platform which overlooked the beach, and were surrounded by large windswept dunes. A posted sign asked visitors to refrain from leaving the platform to climb the dunes. The sign explained in detail how disturbing the dunes leads to their erosion and eventual collapse. The Creator, in His infinite wisdom, causes plant life to grow on the dunes, which trap the sand, keeping it in place. Treading on these plants can uproot them, and will eventually doom the entire dune.
The deer and other assorted native wildlife apparently had trouble reading the informative signI noted with interest that the “undisturbed” dunes were actually full of footprints. While it seems that the human tourists were environmentally sensitive and refrained from walking on the dunes, the deer and other assorted native wildlife apparently had trouble reading the informative sign. This phenomenon doesn’t seem to bother the ecologists. After all, the deer tracks are as much part of nature as the sand dunes themselves. It would be illogical to preserve one aspect of nature by repressing another.
But what about human nature? Deer will naturally walk to a watering hole (no matter how many dune plants will be uprooted), cats naturally chase and kill mice, and humans naturally like to climb dunes—or any other large body which exists. As George Leigh Mallory famously responded when he was asked why he wished to climb Mount Everest: “Because it’s there!”
Why repress human nature to preserve sand dunes?
The answer lies in the intrinsic difference between humans and all other forms of life which inhabit our planet. We are not just another species of mammals; we are fundamentally different. All of G‑d’s creations were created with a specific nature and character, above which they cannot rise. The human, on the other hand, has the ability and the obligation to transcend his nature. Indeed, this is the very purpose of Man; to use his intellect to control, and eventually transform, his egotistical and harmful tendencies, addictions and personality.
Thus, we are the guardians of our planet, because only we have the ability to curb our personal natures for the sake of a greater good.
This is true in the ecological sense, and it is certainly true in the spiritual sense as well. There is a haunting Chabad song with Yiddish lyrics: “Eating is natural, drinking is natural; what shall we do—praying isn’t! Eating is natural, sleeping is natural; what shall we do—studying isn’t!” (Click here to listen.) The lament expressed in this song is one we can all relate to: why is it that our physical needs come so much more naturally than our not-any-less-vital spiritual essentials?
But this is the purpose of our creation. When we refrain from treading on sand dunes, or when we recycle, we transcend our animal natures and we earn the title of human. When we do a mitzvah, we transcend our human nature and reveal our divine core.