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Two Articles Relating Tisha B’Av to Current Environmental Issues and Threats

1. Relating Tisha B’Av to Today’s Environmental Crises                   

     Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av) which we commemorate in 2018 on July 21 – 22, 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 as well.

      Today there is no Jeremiah or other prophet, but it is thousands of climate exerts warning us that now it is not just 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 threats. For example, 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,” document 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 how hungry people feel. 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.” Yet, today over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as an estimated 20 million 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” in terms of 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 prevent further environmental degradation.

     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. The Jewish people 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.

     All of us can and must contribute to this new stewardship, even with modest changes to our lifestyle. In 1999, the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote: “Just as we don’t claim that people need to stop driving their cars completely, we don’t argue that they need to stop eating meat entirely. But reductions in both areas – driving and meat consumption – will certainly benefit the environment.”

     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 making it a time to begin striving even harder to live up to Judaism’s highest moral values and teachings. One important way to do this is by applying Jewish values in efforts to shift our precious, but imperiled, planet onto a more sustainable path.

 

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2. Tisha B’Av and Vegetarianism 

[Please note: whenever the word vegetarianism appears in the article below, it should be interpreted as: Vegetarianism, and preferably veganism.]

      There are many connections between vegetarianism and the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av:

1. Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av) commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. Today the entire world is threatened by climate change, and modern intensive livestock agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

2. In Megilat Eichah (Lamentations), which is read on Tisha B’Av, the prophet Jeremiah warned the Jewish people of the need to change their unjust ways in order to avoid the destruction of Jerusalem. Today, climate scientists are warning that the world may be very close to a climate tipping point when climate change will spin out of control, with disastrous consequences, unless major changes are soon made. Vegetarians join in this warning, and add that a switch toward vegetarianism is an essential part of the major changes that are required.

3. On Tisha B’Av, Jews fast to express their sadness over the destruction of the two Temples. Fasting also awakens us to how hungry people feel. So severe are the effects of starvation that the Book of Lamentations (4:10) 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.” Yet, today over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as an estimated 20 million people worldwide die annually because of hunger and its effects and almost a billion of the world’s people are chronically malnourished..

4. During the period from Rosh Chodesh Av to Tisha B’Av known as the “nine days”, Jews do not eat meat or fowl, except on the Sabbath day. After the destruction of the second Temple, some sages argued that Jews should no longer eat meat, as a sign of sorrow. However, it was felt that the Jewish people would not be able to obey such a decree. It was also believed then that meat was necessary for proper nutrition. Hence, a compromise was reached in terms of Jews not eating meat in the period immediately before Tisha B’Av.

5. 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 to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit.

Vegetarians are also respectfully asking, “Where art thou?” What are we doing re widespread world hunger, the destruction of the environment, the cruel treatment of farm animals, etc.? Perhaps failure to properly hear and respond to “ayekah” in terms of stating “Hineni” – 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“.

6. The book of Lamentations was meant to wake up the Jewish people to the need to return to God’s ways. Since vegetarianism is God’s initial diet (Genesis 1:29), vegetarians are also hoping to respectfully alert Jews to the need to return to that diet.

7. Tisha B’Av is not only a day commemorating negative events. It is also the day when, according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will be born, and the days of mourning will be turned into joyous festivals. According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the Messianic period will be vegetarian. He based this view on the prophecy of Isaiah, “The wolf will dwell with the lamb . . .the lion will eat straw like the ox . . . and no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God’s holy mountain” (Isaiah 11: 6-9).

8. After the destruction of the second Temple, the Talmudic sages indicated that Jews need not eat meat in order to rejoice during festivals. (Pesachim 109a)They stated that the drinking of wine would suffice, (Pesachim 109a)

9. The Book of Lamentations ends with “Chadesh yameinu k’kedem – make new our days as of old.” We can help this personal renewal occur by returning to the original human diet, the vegan diet of Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), a diet that can help us feel renewed because of the many health benefits of plant-based diets.

10. The Book of Lamentations has many very graphic descriptions of hunger. One is: “The tongue of the suckling child cleaves to its palate for thirst. Young children beg for bread, but no one extends it to them.” Today, the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and others are predicting major shortages of food in the near future, and one major reason is that people in China, Japan, India, and other countries where affluence has been increasing are moving to animal-centered diets that require vast amounts of grain.

     In view of these and other connections, I hope that Jews will enhance their commemoration of the solemn but spiritually meaningful holiday of Tisha B’Av by making it a time to begin striving even harder to live up to Judaism’s highest moral values and teachings. One important way to do this is by moving toward a vegetarian diet.

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