Earth Etude for Elul 21: Tikkun Olam and Climate Change
by Michael Garry
Tikkun olam, which in Hebrew means “repair of the world,” has always been a guiding principle of the Jewish people, one that we teach our children and try to practice in our everyday lives. In the modern era, tikkun olam means that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual, and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large.
It is well known that the welfare of the planet is now threatened by an environmental crisis called climate change, caused by unchecked emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
While climate change can sound very grim, our Jewish faith can help sustain us and inspire us to action; indeed, caring for the Earth is one of the cornerstones of Judaism, and it’s found throughout the Torah. During this season of teshuvah, it is especially important for Jews to reflect on our obligation to help correct our transgressions against the environment.
The very act of creation in Genesis marks the sacred quality of the Earth, and humankind’s duty to respect, protect and preserve God’s creation. We are God’s caretakers; as it is written in Genesis 2:15, God created Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden “to work it and conserve it.”
There is also a body of Jewish law called the Law of Neighbors (Hilkhot Shekeinim), which states that there is no presumptive right to cause pollution that damages another’s health, no matter how long we have been doing it.
In Psalms, farmers are asked to be conscious of what they plant, not sowing their fields with mingled seeds. Proverbs stresses the importance of trees – which are a great remedy for climate change since they absorb much carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Indeed, planting trees has been a bedrock of our tradition, and a principal part of the Tu BiShvat holiday. The Torah itself is called “a tree of life.”
For Jews, Shabbat is an opportunity to step back from everyday activities, which helps preserve the environment. The Torah also stipulates a practice called Shmitta (Sabbatical Year) such that every 7th year shall be a Shabbat for the land; farmers shall not plant that year so as to not overuse the fields. People eat whatever grows on its own in the fields. In Israel, Shmitta is practiced in a lesser form to this day.
What else can we do to reverse climate change? I’ve discovered that the climate issue becomes less overwhelming when you work in a group, not just by yourself. That can foster camaraderie and make it a joyful experience, not a grim one. So join with other like-minded people.
When you consider the lessons of the Torah, fighting climate change becomes a religious and moral issue, not a matter of politics. As Jews, we can all agree on the moral underpinning of protecting and preserving the environment for ourselves and our children. And we can spread that message to all people of good will.
As Jews, who have historically had to survive threats to our existence, we are especially suited to helping the world adapt to and overcome the climate crisis. Which takes us back to the bedrock principle: tikkun olam.
Michael Garry is Editor in Chief for shecco, which promotes climate-friendly cooling and heating systems that use natural refrigerants. He is also the author of Game of My Life: New York Mets, published in 2015 and 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing.