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Finding Environmental Lessons in Jewish Tradition for Earth Day

April 10, 2006
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This year, Earth Day falls on a Saturday, April 22, providing a perfect opportunity to turn the day into an “environmental Shabbat.” Shabbat is a reminder of creation, as the Bible writes after six days of creation: “The heaven and earth were finished, and all their hosts. And on the seventh day, God finished all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day, God rested.” (Genesis 2:1-2) When God created the world, he was able to say, “It is very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

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 abundance of species of plants and animals that God created are becoming extinct in tropical rain forests and other threatened habitats? When the fertile soil that God provided is rapidly being depleted and eroded? When the climatic conditions that God designed to meet our needs are threatened by global warming?

Earth Day also falls almost immediately after Passover this year, and today’s environmental threats can be compared to the biblical 10 plagues, which are considered at the Passover seder:

When we consider the threats to our land, waters, and air, pesticides and other chemical pollutants, resource scarcities and threats to our climate, we can easily enumerate 10 modern “plagues.”

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

The Israelites in Goshen were spared most of the biblical plagues, while every person on earth is imperiled by the modern plagues.

Instead of an ancient Pharaoh’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.

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 imperiled planet.

The first Earth Day was in 1970, so this year’s event will be the 36th anniversary of Earth Day. The number 36 has special significance in Judaism, as it represents the number of righteous people who uphold the world. It also represents twice chai, the Hebrew word for life. Chai is composed of the Hebrew letters chet and yud, whose numerical values are eight and 10, thus adding up to 18. Hence, we can relate Earth Day this year to improving two lives, that of our endangered planet and that of Judaism.

Our planet is arguably threatened as never before. Just to take one problem, global warming, we have recently experienced record heat waves, increasing numbers and severity of hurricanes and other storms, rapid melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, major floods, and severe droughts. This has all occurred due to a 1 degree Fahrenheit average increase in the global temperature. This is very frightening since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group composed of the world’s leading climate scientists, has projected an average global temperature increase of 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century, and that would have catastrophic effects in many areas worldwide.

An ancient rabbinic teaching 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)

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

Judaism teaches that the earth is God’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.

Judaism stresses ba’al 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 about 4 percent of the world’s population it uses about one-third of the world’s resources, and this has a major impact on pollution and resource scarcities.

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 conservation and renewable energy, consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving the environment, conserving resources, creating jobs, protecting human lives, and considering future generations.

The book of Jonah, which is read 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 shift the world from its present perilous path.

Hence, making Earth Day 2006 an environmental Shabbat, with sermons, classes, environmentally conscious meals and other environmentally related activities can be an important step toward moving our imperiled planet to a sustainable path and revitalizing Judaism.

Richard H. Schwartz is a professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island and president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America. He is the author of “Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival” and “Mathematics and Global Survival.”

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