A long time before environmentalism became fashionable as a political and social cause Jewish texts had important and challenging things to say about our obligations to the planet. This first struck me a number of years ago when I was asked to speak to an interfaith group who were developing a multi-faith garden – what did Judaism have to say about gardens?

Although this wasn’t a question I had ever devoted much thought to I soon realised that if we broadened the concept of a garden just a little bit, there would be lots to talk about. In terms of legal thought, a full sixth of the Mishna is devoted to agricultural laws from which the bulk of the Talmud’s laws of charity and social justice are derived. And when it comes to messianic visions of the prophets, few are more striking than Amos’ description of the Land of Israel transformed into a tranquil garden:

Behold days are coming say the Lord, when the ploughman shall meet the reaper and he who treads grapes the one who carries the seed, and the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt.

And I will return the captivity of My people Israel, and they shall rebuild desolate cities and inhabit [them], and they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their produce. And I will plant them on their land, and they shall no longer be uprooted from upon their land, that I have given them, said the Lord your God (Amos 9:13-15)

This vision of vineyards, agriculture and gardens, lying of course in stark contrast to the dominant physical space of the Tanakh (Bible) – that of the desert, ‘a land unsown’ – in which the gruelling journeys and struggles of this world are undertaken.

But perhaps the most important classical source for thinking about the Torah and the environment is one so well-known that we often miss this aspect of its message – and that is of course the story of Adam and Eve in Eden. Long before the Biblical heroes were farmers and shepherds the first man of the Tanakh is a gardener, whose mandate from God is l’ovda u’lshomra – to work and preserve the garden.

This imagery was clearly the inspiration for a series of midrashim about our relationship to the planet whose deceptive simplicity is probably of greater power and relevance today than at any other time. I want to share just one of them which, to my mind, contains a political point as powerful as any I know of for thinking about the environment today.

The midrash is one whose beginning I had known for many years. But as frequently happens when we check the texts of sources that we have only heard orally, the original version frequently contains a more nuanced and troubling message than the one more popularly known. The midrash, from the collection Kohelet Rabba, begins as follows:

‘ראה את מעשה האלהים כי מי יוכל לתקן את אשר עותו’ (קהלת ז:יג), בשעה שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את אדם הראשון נטלו והחזירו על כל אילני גן עדן ואמר לו ‘ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן וכל מה שבראתי בשבילך בראתי, תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי,שאם קלקלת אין מי שיתקן אחריך

See the works of God – for who can fix that which has been made crooked. (Kohelet 7:13)

At the time that the Holy One created the first man he showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘see My creations, how pleasant they are – and everything I created, I created it for you. Take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one who will come after you to fix it’.

This was the section of the midrash I had always known and which is frequently invoked in environmentally minded parts of the Jewish world. Its message is straightforward and powerful. The world was indeed created for man to benefit from, even ‘to rule over and subdue’. But it is precisely this power and privilege which entails Adam’s responsibility towards his environment. God will not recreate the world a second time and so responsibility for His creation lies with man. Here is our great challenge: to use the planet and environment to our own benefit without destroying it in the process.

Yet the midrash does not end here. Instead it introduces a more challenging notion.

ולא עוד שאת גורם מיתה לאותו צדיק, משל משה רבינו למה”ד, לאשה עוברה שהיתה חבושה בבית האסורים, ילדה שם בן גדלה שם ומתה שם, לימים עבר המלך על פתח האסורים כשהמלך עובר התחיל אותו הבן צווח, ואומר אדני המלך כאן נולדתי כאן גדלתי באיזה חטא אני נתון כאן איני יודע, אמר לו בחטא של אמך

‘Moreover’, said God to Adam, ‘if you do not heed this message, you cause the death of that righteous one, of Mosheh Rabbeinu’. To what is the matter comparable? To a pregnant woman chained in prison. There she gave birth to a son, there she raised him, and there she died. After many days, the king passed the entrance to the prison. As he passed, the son screamed out and said: ‘my master the king, I was born here, and I have grown up here – for what crime am I placed here, I have no idea’. The king responded, ‘you are here for the crime of your mother’.

It is a commonplace of Jewish thought that the sin of Adam and Eve brought death into the world. Yet where for the most part this introduction of human mortality is understood as punishment for rebellion against God’s word, our midrash reframes it as the inevitable consequence of disregard for our physical environment. Yet how exactly is Adam held to be responsible for Mosheh’s death and what is the significance of the chilling story of the child condemned to remain imprisoned for a sin he never committed?

The enigmatic parable can be illuminated by reference to one of the most important political-philosophical debates in contemporary discussions on the environment – a topic known as intergenerational justice. A heated debate between an environmentalist and a skeptic may go something like this:

  • Environmentalist: we need to drastically change the way we live if we’re to save the planet
  • Skeptic: But I enjoy the way I live my life and don’t see any significant damage to the planet
  • Environmentalist: You may not see it now, but in two hundred years’ time the Earth will be unrecognisable.
  • Skeptic: Two hundred years?! That’s way beyond my lifetime and even that of my children and grandchildren. Why should I cease to benefit from the present, if the effects will only be felt long after I have passed on?

In other words, and this is a coherent and valid question, can we really be said to have obligations to those who do not currently exist, and will not be born for centuries more?

It isn’t immediately clear to me how a purely secular philosophy could answer that we do indeed owe something to future generations. Yet the midrash provides precisely such an answer. We all surely balk at the imprisonment of a child for a crime committed by a deceased parent, yet, says the midrash, if we fail to care for and preserve the world, that is precisely what we are doing for future generations.

The king represents a straightforward logic that our actions may turn the world into a future prison from which there is no escape whilst Mosheh / the son represents the future generations whose possibility of a viable and meaningful existence may be destroyed (Mosheh is presumably mentioned as a representative of the greatest human achievement possible). And we are of course Adam / the mother. The logic that makes the whole scene coherent is the fundamental premise that God has given Adam and his descendants, us, both the privilege to enjoy the Earth and the responsibility to preserve it.

At a time when man’s destructive potential was so much smaller, what on earth could have been the circumstances in Israel or Babylon of approximately 1300 years ago that enabled a writer of midrash to envision a future world as a prison inhabited by those condemned for the crimes of their parents – we are given no clue. But as for  its chillingly contemporary relevance – there can be no doubt.

L’ovda u’lshomra – Tu B’Shvat Sameach