Judaism and the Environment

Some Thoughts for Tu B'Shvat

When God created the world, he was able to say, "It is very good". Everything was in harmony as God had planned, the waters were clean, the air was pure. But what must God think about the world today?

What must God think when the rain he sends to nourish our crops is often acid rain due to the many chemicals poured into the air by our industries? when the ozone layer that God provided to separate the heavens from the earth is being depleted at such a rapid rate? when the abundance of species of plants and animals that was created are becoming extinct in tropical rain forests and other threatened habitats, before we are even been able to catalog them? when the fertile soil that was provided is rapidly being depleted and eroded? when the climatic conditions that God designed to meet our needs are threatened by global warming?

An ancient midrash has become all too relevant today:

In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, God showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him:

"See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you."
Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28

Today's environmental threats can be compared in many ways to the Biblical ten plagues, which are in the Torah portions in the weeks immediately preceding Tu B'Shvat:

1. When we consider the threats to our land, waters, and air, pesticides and other chemical pollutants, resource scarcities, threats
to our climate, etc., we can easily enumerate ten modern "plagues".

2. The Egyptians were subjected to one plague at a time, while the modern plagues are threatening us all at once.

3. The Jews in Goshen were spared the Biblical plagues, while every person on earth is imperiled by the modern plagues.

4. Instead of an ancient Pharoah's heart being hardened, our hearts today have been hardened by the greed, materialism, and waste that are at the root of current environmental threats.

5. God provided the Biblical plagues to free the Israelites, while today we must apply God's teachings in order to save ourselves and our precious but endangered planet.

The problems today are due to the fact that the ways of the world are completely contrary to Jewish values:

1. Judaism teaches that the earth is the Lord's and that we are to be partners and co-workers with God in protecting the environment. But today's philosophy is that the earth is to be exploited for maximum profit, regardless of the long-range ecological consequences.

2. Judaism stresses bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value. By contrast, wastefulness in the United States is so great that, with less than 5% of the world's people we use about a third of the world's resources, and this has a major impact on pollution and resource scarcities.

3. Judaism asserts that a wise person considers the long-range consequences of
his/her actions and that we must plan for future generations; but the way of the world today is often to consider only immediate gains.

It is urgent that Torah values be applied toward the solution of current environmental problems. This means, for example: an energy policy based not on dangerous energy sources, but on CARE (conservation and renewable energy), consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving the environment, conserving resources, creating jobs, protecting human lives, and considering future generations; a shift toward vegetarian diets, since meat-centered diets and the livestock agriculture associated with them are inconsistent with many basic Jewish values.

The book of Jonah, which is read as the prophetic portion during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, has a powerful lesson with regard to current ecothreats. Jonah was sent by God to Nineveh to urge the people to repent and change their unjust ways in order to avoid destruction. Today, in a sense, the whole world is Nineveh, in danger of annihilation and in need of repentance and redemption, and each one of us must be a Jonah, with a mission to warn the world that it must turn from waste, materialism, greed, and injustice, in order to turn the world from its present perilous path.

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