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Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.

Bal Tash’chit: Preserving the Earth

Setting sun on Santa Monica Beach, California
Setting sun over Santa Monica Beach, California

“The Holy Blessing One took the first human and, passing before all the trees of the Garden of Eden, said, “See My works. How fine and excellent they are All that I created. I created for you. Consider that, and do not corrupt and desolate my world: for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you.” -Kohelet Rabbah

There is a little-known ritual in Judaism which occurs only once every 28 years. Birkat Ha-Hammah (blessing of the sun). According to a Talmudic rabbi, the vernal equinox cycle takes 28 years, and Jews thank God for the sun and its life-giving rays at the commencement of each new solar cycle – one of many Jewish rituals designed to sensitize us to the wonder of nature. Each time the year of the Birkat Ha-Hammah approaches, a flurry of articles, classes, and books seek to educate the Jewish people about this ritual. Once the date passes, the excitement wears off and most of us forget that such an event ever happened at all. There is some time before we gear up again: the next Birkat Ha-Hammah will be on April 8, 2037.

In the West, we too have a ritual to help us focus on our beleaguered planet, known as Earth Day. As with the Birkat Ha-Hammah, this occasion seeks to direct our attention to the importance of the natural world. And as with the blessing of the sun, the excitement and commitment that surrounds Earth Day reaches a crescendo and is then soon forgotten.

Earth Day may pass, but the earth does not go away. This planet, our home, needs our attention not only once a year, but every day. Humanity stands on the brink — poised to make our earth unlivable forever.

We already possess the knowledge to prevent this destruction, but we may not have the vision and the will to alter the way we live. What we require is not only behavior modification but a different framework for understanding the world and our place in it.

Judaism provides that framework, one which recognizes that we live in a world we did not create, a world we do not own. From its inception, Judaism insists that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants (Psalm 24:1).” The Torah conveys the reminder that we are tenants and residents in God’s world. We are a part of creation, not the replacement for the Creator.

As such, our role is to live responsibly as a part of the world that God made. The very beginning of the Torah is both a challenge and a responsibility: The first humans are told to “replenish the earth and master it.” We demonstrate our mastery of the earth not by despoiling it, not by endangering habitation, but by fashioning a way of living that is nurturing of human potential and sustaining to all life.

The cardinal mitzvah in this regard is Bal Tash’chit (Do not destroy). Avoiding any unnecessary destruction is an obligation that extends to how we care for fruit trees, clothing, homes, and any other resource. In essence, it is a prohibition against being wasteful, a recognition that the objects we fashion and own are not so much created by our will as borrowed from nature. Ultimately, inevitably, they will be returned — either as waste, pollution, or in a form that can be reabsorbed without harm. A commitment not to waste is a commitment to live respectfully
with limits, to reorder what we mean by success and by progress.

According to one medieval rabbi, those who are mindful of this mitzvah “will not destroy even a mustard seed in the world, and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage that they see; and if they are able to do any rescuing, they will save anything from destruction with all their power.”

In previous ages, concern for the well-being of our surroundings reflected a basic philosophy of living in harmony with God’s creation. However, human ingenuity and energy now have global implications. As a result, today’s environmental concerns also reflect another mitzvah: Va-Chai Bahem (you shall live by them). Our very survival depends on our adopting a more balanced approach to how we live our lives and how we measure our wealth and well-being.

These words, then, are a summons to grow in the mitzvah of Bal Tash’chit — to elevate to conscious thought how we live in the world, how we can curtail our extravagance and wastefulness, and how we can restore a sense of balance and identification with the earth and its inhabitants.

At its core, the environmental movement is about belonging: expanding our notion of community to transcend the borders of states, nations, and even of species. As a Shomer Adamah (guardian of the earth), we can cultivate our identification with the earth and with its cycles.

A first step, then, is to link up with environmental and scientific organizations that will educate us, provide a sense of common purpose and guide our involvement in effective ways. Countless groups exist to cultivate an appreciation of nature and effective advocacy on its behalf.

Judaism is not, by and large, a proselytizing religion. We do not generally seek to convert through missionary activity or through religious argument. Instead, we try to demonstrate the benefits of sacred living by making ourselves role models of a different way of living, That approach is no less appropriate in transforming our way of living with the world. How we use resources in our homes and personal lives can have a significant impact on the health of our planet.

A step toward cultivating an awareness of our involvement in the natural world involves using the tools offered by traditional Jewish practice. For example, Shabbat and the Holy Days can sensitize us to the cycles of the seasons and restrain the impulse to intervene in nature. They represent a call to fulfill our sense of self-worth by reflecting God’s image, not by amassing more possessions. Kashrut encourages us to be aware of animal life and its sanctity, and to eat more vegetables and less meat. Over and over, the Jewish way of life encourages an awareness of the wonder and connection of all creation.

A concrete expression of that teaching is the recital of the Birkhot Ha-Nehenin (“Blessings of Enjoyment”). These blessings can be found in most traditional prayerbooks. Reciting these blessings at the appropriate occasions can sensitize us to the wonders of the world. There are blessings to say when smelling fragrant spices, when smelling trees or shrubs or fruit or oils, when seeing wonders of nature, hearing thunder, seeing a rainbow, the ocean, or trees blossoming.

It is an ancient Jewish custom to recite a blessing over the new moon. The calendar of Judaism, unlike the western calendar, corresponds to natural phenomena. The length of the year is determined by the cycle of the sun, and the months are determined by the cycle of the moon. By living life according to the Jewish calendar, we can attend to sun, moon, and stars. Get a Jewish calendar and begin to use it. Go outside at night and look up!

Notice when Rosh Hodesh (the new month) begins and correlate that date with the state of the moon. When there is no moon visible, or when there is just a sliver, that is Rosh Hodesh. When the full moon is visible, then we are midway through the month, around the 15tlh. Make a point of following the calendar through the seasons. Between the 3rd and the 15th day of the Jewish month, it is traditional to bless the new moon. This blessing, Kiddush Levanah (Sanctification of the Moon), is a collection of Psalms, Talmudic wisdom, and a berakhah (blessing) thanking God for the possibility of renewal. It is customarily recited outdoors, under the light of the moon itself.

These and other blessings direct our attention to the marvel of being alive, the joy of being able to perceive. Perhaps if we cultivate an awareness of how wonderful the world is, our motivation to care for it will also increase.

Ritual is the practice of making values habitual. Healing our planet requires precisely those kinds of rituals. Our water use, how we handle garbage, how we drive our cars, how we generate and use energy, and how we preserve life, all can reflect a wisdom and caring that will preserve the environment for future generations.

My teacher, Rabbi Simon Greenberg, taught me a succinct way to understand a Jew’s overarching obligation: At the end of the creation story, God looked at all that had been created and assessed that it was tov me’od (very good). Rabbi Greenberg asserted that our role in life is to conduct our actions and to organize our communities so that we vindicate God’s judgment, fashioning a world which really is tov me’od.

When we learn to live in such a way that life on earth can replenish itself and sustain the planet’s inhabitants, when we replace our carelessness and wastefulness with responsibility and consciousness, when we labor as caretakers of a world that is neither our plaything nor our property, then we will have taken a large step toward bringing God’s judgment to fruition.

Creation can be tov me’od, and it is up to us, as God’s partners in Creation, to restore the world’s goodness to its original splendor. Then we can transmit that wonder and beauty to our descendants yet to come, an inheritance worthy of the God who makes it, and a credit to our ability to care for the world and for all living things.

Every day is Earth Day.

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.
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