By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
April 23, 2021 – י”א באייר התשפ”א
“We have come to our homeland in order to be planted in our natural soil from which we have been uprooted, to strike our roots deep into its life-giving substances, and to stretch out our branches in the sustaining and creative air and sunlight of our homeland. … We… have been torn away from nature, [and] have lost the savor of natural living — if we desire life, we must establish a new relationship with nature.” — A.D. Gordon
There is a famous story about Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888) a German-Jewish rabbi, best known as the intellectual founder of the”תורה עם דרך ארץ” Torah im Derech Eretz school of contemporary Orthodox Judaism. One day, as he studied and taught in his Beit Midrash, he stood up, closed the Gemara from which he was learning, and declared to his students that he was off to hike for three days in the Alps. Coming as a quite unusual if not bizarre act for the rabbi, his students were caught by surprise. “When I reach the gates of heaven, I will be asked many questions,” he explained. “And I will have good answers for most of them. But what will I say when God asks me, ‘Nu Shimshon, what did you think of my Alps?'”
This week we celebrate Earth Shabbat (the Shabbat immediately after Earth Day), which should serve as a reminder that 1) our Earth is an endangered species and 2) that we ought to make intentional time away from the screen (or the Talmud, if that’s your thing) and go out and actually discover the wonders of nature, as Jerry Garcia taught us.
In the second chapter of the book of Genesis, we are told that our role as humans was to be placed on earth (and specifically in the Garden of Eden) לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ to “till and to tend” (Genesis 2:15), that we were put here to be stewards of the earth. To work the land, literally the meaning of the word agriculture (ager = “field” + Cultura = “cultivation”) and to guard, protect, and preserve it.
Environmentalism and Zionism are two causes we do not typically associate together. Yet, since protection of the environment is a Jewish value, should we not think of the national movement of the Jewish people in ecological terms, just as we do in political ones? The primary political goal of the Zionist movement, the restoration of a National Home for the Jewish People in the Land of Israel, has happily been achieved. Yet its ecological corollary, the restoration and protection of the native flora and fauna of our homeland, and the rehabilitation of its unique eco-systems and landscapes is an ongoing struggle.
Earth Day this year leads into the reading of a double parashah – Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27), which offers us what we could describe as the quintessential guide to human relations. It covers a great many subjects, and its basic moral fabric provides the foundation of a just society with these three mitzvot among many others:
- Leave some of the harvest for gleaning by the poor (Lev. 19:10)
- Do not withhold the wages of a laborer until the next day (Lev. 19:13)
- Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind. (Lev. 19:14)
However, this parashah also gives us the foundational approach to environmental stewardship.
וְכִי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם֙ כָּל־עֵ֣ץ מַאֲכָ֔ל וַעֲרַלְתֶּ֥ם עָרְלָת֖וֹ אֶת־פִּרְי֑וֹ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֗ים יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֛ם עֲרֵלִ֖ים לֹ֥א יֵאָכֵֽל׃ (ויקרא יט:כג)
“When you enter the Land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23)
The instruction to plant a tree is not only for nourishment or for marking territory. We know today that trees work to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and reduce air pollution overall. Trees have proven to be an invaluable asset when it comes to improving air quality and reducing harmful pollutant levels in the atmosphere. We are losing trees by the minute as the rain forests are being lost to deforestation and in some places around the world are being destroyed to make way for areas to graze cattle (reared for beef) or grow unsustainable palm (to create palm oil).
Coming into the land and planting trees became one of the foremost symbols of the Labor Zionist Movement. Thousands and thousands of dunams were planted by the Jewish National Fund beginning in the 1920s and 30s, and skyrocketing after 1948. They came to favor the Jerusalem Pine tree which swiftly dotted the landscape of the Galilee and the Judean Hills. But only around the 1970s did they realize that this was not the right species. Later KKL-JNF was able to sustain itself by performing quasi-governmental functions so the fledgling state wouldn’t need to. Its mandate now focused on infrastructure and agricultural land development. It would now work with the Jewish people in Israel and abroad towards the perceived sacred goal of “redemption of the land from its barrenness.” (See Alon Tal’s excellent book Pollution in a Promised Land).
The role of KKL as a protector of the environment is now being stretched, as their activity has become increasingly political. Yesterday, on Earth Day of all days, KKL, Israel’s Jewish National Fund, [approved/rejected] a proposal to invest millions of shekels beyond the Green line in the areas known as Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank.
As a Movement, we Reform Jews were staunchly against this proposal and our efforts greatly contributed to the vote being postponed this week. The proposal is highly problematic for many reasons, and, as Professor Tal recently said, “it is simply regrettable that the KKL chair insisted on channeling funds to an area lacking consensus support among the organization’s board or the Jewish world it represents.” [See here Rabbi Lea Muhlstein Chair of ARZENU, speaking on i24 news about this proposal and our Movement’s position.
On this Earth Shabbat let us remember what the Psalmist taught us:
לַיהוָה הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ תֵּבֵל וְיֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ׃ (תהילים כד:א)
“The earth is God’s and all that it holds” (Psalm 24:1)
The land doesn’t belong to us, we’re merely temporary caretakers. We have an obligation to do that caretaking responsibly, with devotion, and love.
(Earth) Shabbat Shalom,