The Torah contains many laws for the Israelites to follow when they enter the Promised Land. In a section that includes rules of warfare we read that when the Israelites lay siege to a city, they cannot destroy its trees. “You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you?” God tells the Israelites that even in a time of war, they must not cause any extra harm to their surroundings. This verse is an early incarnation of Jewish environmentalism, the belief that protecting the earth is a Jewish value.
Along with the command to protect trees, Jewish tradition contains other examples of environmentalism. The book of Leviticus states that once every seven years, the Sabbatical Year, the Israelites were not to plant their fields, so that the fields could recover. Human beings need one day of rest, Shabbat, after six days of work. Likewise, the Torah teaches that the land requires one year of rest, the Sabbatical year. The Sabbatical year combines the Jewish value of resting after hard work, with the desire to protect the earth.
The beginnings of Jewish environmentalism appear in the Book of Genesis. God places Adam in the Garden of Eden and tells him to “till it and tend to it.” The Hebrew word that Genesis uses for “tend,” shamar, also means “to protect or guard.” Humans can work the land for food and sustenance but must also guard and protect it. As the Torah tells us, it is a mitzvah, a good deed, to protect the earth.
In the last number of years, as concern for the environment has increased in American society, Jewish environmentalism has grown and developed as well. With high gas prices and global warming moving to the center of the national agenda, now is an important time to renew and strengthen our efforts to help the planet.
What is a Jewish environmentalist? He or she is a person who sees the connection between Jewish values and protecting the earth. One who finds Jewish ways of repairing the seas, the skies and the fields. Jewish environmentalism appeared recently in an article in the Washington Post entitled “Eco-Kosher.” Eco-Kosher combines traditional Jewish dietary laws with new concerns about the environment and organic food. One woman, Devora Kimelman-Block, spent 10 months working with an organic cattle farm and a kosher butcher. She created 450 pounds of meat that is local, grass-fed, organic and strictly kosher. And she is a vegetarian! Eco-Kosher Jews see a connection between the dietary laws and protecting the environment, in that both are a Jewish religious obligation, a mitzvah.
How can you become a Jewish environmentalist? We do not need to produce 450 pounds of kosher organic beef. We can recycle, and replace all of our regular light bulbs with compact florescent bulbs, that use a fraction of the energy and provide the same amount of light. We can reduce our trash by using cloth napkins and regular plates instead of paper goods. We can buy cars with high gas mileage. I recently signed up to switch our electricity to renewable sources through a program in New York State. For only a few extra dollars a month, we help add wind, hydro and solar power to the grid.
Jewish environmentalism should also be part of a Temple and a religious school. At my Temple, we are forming an environmental committee. Its mission is to seek ways that the Temple can be more environmentally sustainable and to bring environmental programs into the religious school. Our first idea is to sell compact florescent light bulbs during religious school hours, for parents to take home and use. We plan to use the slogan: “Let there be (florescent) light!”
Why must Jews care about the environment? Judaism teaches us that our world is a gift. We were born into a beautiful earth full of sunsets, oceans and trout streams. The Rabbis taught that we should say a blessing when we see the small miracles of nature. For lightning, we can say: “Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, the source of creation and its wonders.” And when seeing trees bloom for the first time in the year, we can say: “Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe. You have created goodly creatures and lovely tress that fill the eye and win the heart.”
In the 21st century, it is not enough to only offer blessings. We must also do our part to repair the earth. Whether we recycle, or create programs to make the Temple more green, or buy a Toyota Prius, we can all do one thing every day to help our planet. The Torah portion tells us to protect trees in a time of war. But we must also do our part to protect the entire planet each day, so that it will remain green, vibrant and healthy, a sacred inheritance that we will pass on to future generations.
To read the Eco-Kosher Article from The Washington Post: Click Here.