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Relating Tisha B’Av to Current Environmental Threats

Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av) reminds us that over 2,000 years ago Jews failed to heed the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah, with the result that the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the first of many negative things that occurred on that day, including the destruction of the second Temple.

Today there are many “Jeremiahs” warning us that now it is not only a temple in Jerusalem, but the entire world, that is threatened by climate change and its effects, species extinction, soil erosion, destruction of tropical rain forests and other valuable habitats, and many other environmental problems. As long ago as 1992, over 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including 104 Nobel Laureates, signed a “World Scientists Warning to Humanity,” stating that ‘human beings and the natural world are on a collision course”, and that “a great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” More recently, some climate scientists are warning that we may soon reach a tipping point when climate change will spin out of control with disastrous consequences if major changes do not soon occur.

On Tisha B’Av, Jews fast to express their sadness over the destruction of the two Temples and to awaken us to the horrors that befell the Jews in Jerusalem during these times, including widespread hunger. So severe are the effects of starvation that the Book of Lamentations (4:10), which is read on Tisha B’Av, states that “More fortunate were the victims of the sword than the victims of famine, for they pine away stricken, lacking the fruits of the field.” Today over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as millions of people worldwide die annually because of hunger and its effects and almost a billion of the world’s people face chronic hunger.

Jewish sages connected the word eichah (alas! what has befallen us?) that begins Lamentations and a word that has the same root, ayekah (“Where art thou?”), the question addressed by God to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps failure to properly hear and respond to ayekah by stating Hineini – here I am, ready to carry out God’s commandments so that the world will be better – causes us to eventually have to say and hear eichah.

The reading of the book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av is meant to wake up the Jewish people to the need to return to God’s ways, by showing the horrors that resulted when God’s teachings were ignored. The readings on Tisha B’Av help to sensitize us so that we will hear the cries of lament and change our ways. Rabbi Yochanan stated “Jerusalem was destroyed because the residents limited their decisions to the letter of the law of the Torah, and did not perform actions that would have gone beyond the letter of the law” (lifnim meshurat hadin) (Baba Metzia 30b). In this time of factory farming, climate change and other environmental threats, widespread hunger, and widespread chronic degenerative diseases, perhaps it is necessary that Jews go beyond the strict letter of the law in efforts to avert a climate catastrophe and other environmental disasters.

This Tisha B’Av, I hope that we will begin to heed its basic lesson that failure to respond to proper admonitions can lead to catastrophe. Jews must make tikkun olam (the repair and healing of the planet) a major focus in Jewish life today, and consider personal and societal changes that will improve the environment. By doing this, we would be performing a great kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s Name) by working to meet our mandate to be a “light unto the nations.” (Isaiah 49:6)

All of us can and must contribute to this new stewardship, and one important way is through reducing the consumption of meat and other animal products. Animal-based agriculture contributes significantly to climate change and other environmental threats. For example, a 2006 UN Food and Agriculture report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” indicated that animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than is emitted by all the cars, ships, planes, and other means of transportation combined.

In view of the many threats to humanity today, I hope that Jews will enhance their commemoration of the solemn but spiritually meaningful holiday of Tisha B’Av by applying Jewish values in efforts to shift our precious, but imperiled, planet onto a sustainable path.

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