A Rosh Hashanah Message: Aplying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet

Rosh Hashanah reminds us of God’s creation of the world. The “Ten Days of Repentance” from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is a period to evaluate our deeds and to do teshuvah (repentance) for cases where we have missed the mark. Sukkot, starting four days after Yom Kippur, is a holiday in which we leave our fine houses and live in temporary shelters (sukkahs) to commemorate our ancestors journey in the wilderness. So, that period provides an excellent time to consider the state of the planet’s environment and what we might do to help keep the world on a sustainable path.

When God created the world, He was able to say, “It is very good.” (Genesis 1:31) Everything was in harmony as God had planned, the waters were clean, and the air was pure. But what must God think about the world today?

What must God think when the rain God provided to nourish our crops is often acid rain, due to the many chemicals emitted into the air by industries and automobiles; when so many species of plants and animals that God created are becoming extinct at such an alarming rate in tropical rain forests and other threatened habitats, often before we have even been able to study and catalog many of them; when the abundant fertile soil He provided is quickly being depleted and eroded; when the climatic conditions designed to meet our needs are threatened by climate change?

An ancient rabbinic teaching has become all too relevant today: “In the hour when the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first human being (Adam), God took him and let him pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “See My works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I have created, for you have I created them. Think upon this and do not corrupt and desolate My world, For if you do, there is no one to set it aright after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)

Today their seem to be almost daily reports about record heat waves, severe droughts and major wildfires, the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, an increase in the number and severity of hurricanes and other storms, and other effects of climate change. All of the above and much more has occurred due to a temperature increase in the past 135 years of about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. So, it is very frightening that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group composed of thousands of the leading scientists from many countries, has projected an average temperature increase of 3 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit in the next hundred years. Some leading climate experts, including James Hansen of NASA, fear that climate change may reach a tipping point and spin out of control within a decade, with disastrous consequences, unless major changes soon occur.

All countries, including Israel, are affected by climate change. A report by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense in 2007 indicates that global warming could cause a triple whammy, each of which would heighten tensions and suffering in and around Israel: (1) a rise in temperature of about 6 degrees Fahrenheit; (2) a significant increase in the Mediterranean Sea level, which would threaten the narrow coastal strip of land where 60% of Israel’s population lives and where major infrastructure, such as ports and power plants, would be destroyed; and (3) a significant decrease in rainfall, estimated at 20-30%, which would disrupt agricultural production and worsen the chronic water scarcity problem in Israel and the region. Making matters even worse, much of that rainfall would come in severe storms that would cause major flooding.

Fortunately, there are many Jewish teachings that can be applied to shift the earth to a sustainable path. Briefly, these include:

* Our mandate to be shomrei adamah (guardians of the earth), based on the admonition that we should “work the earth and guard it” (Genesis 2:15);

* the prohibition of bal tashchit, that we should not waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value (Deuteronomy 20:19. 20);

* the teaching that, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalms 24:1), and that the assigned role of the Jewish people is to enhance the world as “partners of God in the work of creation.” (Shabbat 10a);

* the ecological lessons related to the Shabbat, sabbatical, and jubilee cycles.

As co-workers with God, charged with the task of being a light unto the nations and accomplishing tikkun olam (healing and restoring the earth), it is essential that Jews take an active role in applying our eternal, sacred values in struggles to reduce climate change, pollution and the waste of natural resources. Based on the central Jewish mandates to work with God in preserving the earth, Jews must work with others for significant changes in society’s economic and production systems, values, and life-styles. So at the start of a new year, we should seek to reduce our environmental impact The fate of humanity and God’s precious earth are at stake, and if we fail to act properly and in time, there may be “no one after us to set it aright.”

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