Birkat HaChamah: A Time to Increase Efforts to
Healing the Planet
by Richard Schwartz
Birkat HaChamah is an event that commemorates the time that the sun will be in the same relative position from the earth that it was at the time of creation. It occurs every 28 years and this year it will occur on April 8. Since it is a reminder of the creation of the world, it seems like a good time to consider the status of the world's environment and what we can do to improve it.
When God created the world, He was able to say, "It is tov meod (very good)." (Genesis 1:31) Everything was in harmony as God had planned, the waters were clean, and the air was pure. But what must God think about the world today?
What must God think when the climatic conditions that He designed to meet our needs are threatened by global warming; the rain He provided to nourish our crops is often acid rain, due to the many chemicals emitted into the air by industries and automobiles; the ozone layer He provided to separate the heavens from the earth to protect all life on earth from the sun's radiation is being depleted; the abundance of species of plants and animals that He created are becoming extinct at such an alarming rate in tropical rain forests and other threatened habitats; the abundant fertile soil He provided is quickly being depleted and eroded;?
An ancient midrash (rabbinic teaching) has become all too relevant today: "In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, He 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. When we consider the threats to our land, water, and air, pesticides and other chemical pollutants, resource scarcities, threats to our climate, etc., we can easily enumerate ten modern "plagues." Unfortunately, like the ancient Pharaoh, our hearts have been hardened, by the greed, materialism, and wastefulness that are at the root of these threats. And, in contrast to the biblical plagues, modern plagues are all occurring simultaneously, and there is no modern Goshen as a refuge where from these plagues.
Israel is especially threatened by global warming and other environmental threats. It Is now suffering from the worst drought in its history, and a 2007 report from the Israel Union for Environmental Defense projects that global warming will cause a temperature increase of 3-11 degrees Fahrenheit, an average decrease in rainfall of 20 - 30 percent, severe storms and major flooding from a rising Mediterranean Sea.
The Talmudic sages expressed a sense of sanctity toward the environment: "The atmosphere (air) of the land of Israel makes one wise." [Baba Batra 158b] They assert that people's role is to enhance the world as "co-partners of God in the work of creation." [Shabbat 10a] The rabbis indicate great concern for preserving the environment and preventing pollution: "It is forbidden to live in a town which has no garden or greenery." [Kiddushin 4:12; 66d] Threshing floors are to be placed far enough from a town so that the town is not dirtied by chaff carried by winds. [Baba Batra 2:8] Tanneries are to be kept at least 50 cubits from a town and to be placed only on its eastern side, so that odors are not carried by the prevailing winds from the west. [Baba Batra 2:8,9]
It is time to apply Judaism's powerful environmental teachings to reducing global warming and other environmental threats. Among the most important is the prohibition against wasting or destroying unnecessarily anything of value (bal tashhit - "thou shalt not destroy"). It is based on the prohibition against destroying fruit-bearing trees in warfare. [Deuteronomy 20:19-20]
The sages of the Talmud extended this into a general prohibition against waste: "Whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs up a fountain, or destroys food violates the prohibition of bal tashchit" [Kiddushin 32a]
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 19th century philosopher and author, states that bal tashhit is the first and most general call of God: We are to "regard things as God's property and use them with a sense of responsibility for wise human purposes. Destroy nothing! Waste nothing!" He indicates further that destruction includes using more things (or things of greater value) than are necessary to obtain one's aim. [Horeb; Chapter 56]
Since Birkat HaChamah focuses on the sun, this is a good time to consider using solar energy and other renewable forms of energy, in order to reduce global warming and our dependence on fossil fuels.
When thanking God for the many blessings of Creation on Birkat HaChamah, we might also consider returning to the vegan, strictly plant-based dietary regimen that God provided for humans when the world was created (Genesis 1:29), because animal-based agriculture is having devastating effects on the environment. Raising 60 billion farmed animals worldwide for slaughter annually causes soil erosion and depletion, the loss of biological diversity, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other valuable habitats and other environmental problems and requires far more land, water and energy than plant-based agriculture. Most importantly, with the world apparently rapidly approaching an unprecedented catastrophe from global warming, a 2006 UN report indicated that the production of meat and other animal-foods emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than all of the world's cars, planes, ships and all other means of transportation combined (18 percent vs. 13.5 percent).
We are to be responsible stewards, co-workers with God, in protecting the environment. Hence, with our world so threatened today, Birkat HaChamah would be a great time to start applying Jewish values to help shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.