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“To work and to preserve” Judaism and the Environment

Once, Honi was walking along the road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked “How long before it will bear fruit?” The man answered, “Seventy years.” Honi asked, “Are you sure that you will be alive in seventy years to eat from its fruit?” The man answered, “I found this world filled with carob trees. Just as my ancestor planted for me, so shall I plant for my children.”

Baylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a

Trees in this story are symbolic of eternity. They outlive us, and yet by caring for them we achieve eternity. They are the gift we give to our children, and grandchildren.

Tu Bishvat, the Jewish Arbor Day, or “New Year of the Trees” falls this year on Tuesday night, January 30 and Wednesday, January 31. In ancient times, this was a day for calculating the “birth” of trees for the purposes of tithing. In Israel, the sap in the trees begins to rise, an early step in the formation of fruit. Tu Bishvat over the centuries became a day to celebrate our connection to the land of Israel. More recently, it has become a day for study and reflection about our global, natural environment.

There is a common and very mistaken idea that Judaism is not concerned with nature. Some misidentify our tradition as only an intellectual, urban, commercial one wherein trees, rivers, animals, soil, and clean air do not rank highly. Actually, Judaism is rich with teachings about environmental stewardship. The following are some central principles:

First, in Deuteronomy 20:19-20, we are given the principle of Ba’al Tash’chit, “lest you destroy,” a Mitzvah which has traditionally set limits on our power to consume the earth and its resources. While the original Torah verse spoke only of destroying fruit bearing trees, this Mitzvah, as many paradigmatic Biblical commandments, was extended way beyond its first meaning. So, Maimonides, in the Twelfth Century, ruled: “One who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys food on purpose violates the command, ‘You must not destroy – Baal Tashchit.” (Mishneh Torah, Book of Judges, Laws of Kings and War, 6:10). We are created not to rule creation, but to preserve it and steward its rational, ethical use.

Another distinctively Jewish contribution to environmental ethics is our value of Hatzala, or rescue. This Mitzvah is based on the famous verse, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16) This injunction is unique among ancient and even modern law codes. It makes it a crime to fail to intervene in the rescue of an innocent person from injury or death. Ultimately, as we degrade the earth, one of the most severely threatened parts of creation is us, the human species. The earth may survive our depredation; we will not. There are already places on this earth where citizens don facial masks before venturing outside. Insidious, long term poisoning, measured by asthma, cancers and birth defects, afflicts millions. If we love humanity, we must act to save ourselves form ourselves.

We are also commanded to love G-d, as we love our neighbors. The Rabbis explained that loving a person includes prominently the need to preserve his or her property. Psalm 24, verse 1, teaches, “The Earth and all its fullness is the Lord’s.” So, we ought to preserve our environment not just to protect ourselves, but also because we love G-d.

Traditionally, we also highly regard ba’alei bayit, people in charge of homes and buildings. The role of the balabus (Yiddish), the manager of the family household, is an honored one, as is the bal habayis or parnas, who cared for Synagogues and other community buildings. Rabbi Zalman Shachter Shalomi, of blessed memory, referred to Judaism as a “householder religion”. Many great world religions, such as Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, have strong monastic or ascetic traditions, wherein devotees attempt to transcend material needs. Judaism, in contrast, emphasized elevating mundane aspects of our lives and making them sacred. As a householder religion, our teachings focus on what needs tending or fixing up. So, of the 613 Mitzvot of Torah, scores have to do with how we plant, plow, harvest, earn, spend, eat, dispose of waste, etc. Judaism saw the world, from the creation story on, as a home which, by our choices, we may safeguard or G-d forbid deplete.

Finally, we can contribute to environmentalism through the Jewish ethical value of anava, or humility. Ours lands and waters are now begging for relief because we have tied science and technology to the profit motive no matter what the cost. We have to organize politically to combat industrial pollution, but we also have to break personal habits, to eliminate material excess in our homes, offices and personal consumption, and in the technologies which power our home, our work, and our hobbies. We have every right to pursue comfort. Osher, wealth, is a blessing from G-d. But, as we pursue success and comfort, let us remember that our relationship to the earth is not only utilitarian. It is also spiritual, and rooted in gratitude and wonder for the bounty and laws of nature.

“Just as my ancestors planted for me, so shall I plant or my children.” Amen! And a very happy Tu Bishvat.
Rabbi Weintraub

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