You Are a Tree of the Earth

Since I was a teenager in high school and initiated the “Yeshivah College Ecological Society,” I’ve been acutely aware of the preservation of our natural environment and how cavalier we are about it.

The society was the idealistic passion of an adolescent and a dismal failure. My teachers indulged it, my fellow students ignored it; most were probably bemused by it.

Since that time, the damage we have done to our environment has increased exponentially. Without even mentioning the “C” word, the harmful and sometimes catastrophic destruction of the wonders of our natural world has reached a critical point.

Our world is in trouble: the ice is melting, forests are burning, the air is toxic and entire species of plant and animal life are fast disappearing. Biologist E.O Wilson put it: “The ongoing loss of biodiversity is the greatest since the end of the Mesozoic Era 65 million years ago”.

Even if I can’t understand the climate sceptics I really don’t get how they can use their  beliefs to do nothing about the wanton destruction of our environment. For me this is not left-wing meshugas or the stuff of youthful delusion. It’s an imperative of the Torah, as fundamental to my being a religious Jew ,as is Shabbat or Kashrut. The Torah is, in my mind, one of the earliest sources of ecological awareness, it sings the praises of the wonders of God’s creations and reminds us of our role as custodians.

Every single day in my morning tefillah (prayer) I declare that God in His goodness continually renews the work of creation and I enthusiastically say the words of the Psalmist: “How many are Your works oh Lord. You made them all in wisdom” (Psalm 104). How well our old masters of the word, the crafters of our prayers, understood that this created world is a reflection of its generous Creator: “The earth is full of Your creations” (Siddur). They gave us blessings to declare on seeing those first delightful buds of spring, they instilled within our prayers a deep consciousness of the beauty and delicacy of our natural world. In the key prayer, the Amidah that a Jew should say thrice daily they articulated the Birkat Hashanim: “Bless this year for us. Lord our God and all its type of produce for good. Grant dew / blessing on the face of the earth…”

The Torah is unequivocal in its assertion that we don’t own nature but are custodians or trustees of it. We were given this earth to “work it” but also to “guard it” (Genesis 1 & 2). There are limits to our working or exploitation of the rich gifts of nature; there are trees that you cannot eat from (as in The Creation Story) and there are trees you can’t just destroy because they get in your way. The latter is evident in this week’s parasha: “When you lay siege to a city do not destroy its (fruit) trees… Is the tree of the field a person that you should besiege them?” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

The evocative phrase of this verse can  be translated that a human being too is a tree of the field. We are like the trees, full of character and colour but also so vulnerable, as fragile as a filament.

From this little verse the rabbis built an impressive structure of laws called bal tashchit, the prohibition of random or needless waste. It doesn’t only apply to trees but the pointless destruction of water-sources or perfectly good utensils or buildings. It could well have application to single-use plastics and objects built for rapid obsolescence. It certainly has application to the unethical ethos of our throw-away society.

In a word, being an ecological vandal or simply not being environmentally aware isn’t just bad or myopic behaviour, it’s a moral issue. It’s an Halachik ethical failing. It’s an Halachik flaw. Even if the current “Extinction Rebellion movement” is histrionic in its tone and we know that fear tactics don’t get people to change their behaviour, it raises our awareness and reminds us of the need for a shift in our consciousness.

It’s time for us Orthodox Jews to be seen as champions of our environment and highlighters of ecological awareness and change. We can all do something to reduce our footprint, to step more lightly on this good land that God has given us. If not for ourselves, at least for our children and grandchildren… As the Talmudic story tells us about Choni’s questioning of an old man planting a tree which would only bear fruit after 70 years when he would be long gone. The old man answered him: ‘My ancestors planted for me and now I plant for my children and their future’.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.