Am I My Planet’s Keeper? An Op-Ed piece
by Evonne Marzouk
In the story of Cain and Abel, when Cain murders Abel and G-d questions him, Cain responds with the answer, "Am I my brother's keeper?" This often-quoted rhetorical question has come to represent an ethical responsibility that all human beings have toward each other, also reflected in Hillel's famous characterization of Judaism: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your brother."
Today, in a time when the car I choose to drive can have dramatic consequences for people on a small island thousands of miles away, or when the type of paper I buy could affect an endangered plant (with possible medicinal use) in a Brazilian rainforest, our responsibility to our brother must be explored more deeply to include our expanded impact on the world. To what extent does the Torah and Jewish tradition call us to be the "keepers" of our neighbors, other species, and the planet as a whole?
When G-d first created the world, the Torah says that "G-d saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31) Today, in that same world, more than half of our major rivers are seriously depleted and polluted, and nearly 1.8 million people die worldwide each year due to urban pollution. In Israel, a study found that more people died from air pollution in metropolitan areas than from traffic deaths in all of Israel. In our oceans, 90% of all large fish have been removed, and estimates predict that the world will run out of seafood by 2048 (in only 41 years).
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), a recent international project to assess our global ecosystems, concluded that over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth, and, unless altered, will substantially decrease the resources available for future generations. In fact, the study concluded that our demands are growing while at the same time human actions are diminishing the capacity of many ecosystems to meet these demands. In short, we are wreaking havoc on the fundamental natural resources that we need for our own well-being – and those of our children.
Some have blamed this situation on the biblical instruction that human beings are to "fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over" the other creatures. Is that really the Torah response? Let's look at this verse along with another instruction to humanity, to clarify our role in regard to the environment and the world G-d has created.
And G-d blessed them, and G-d said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the Earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the Earth." (Genesis 1:28)
And the L-rd G-d took [vayanicheyhu] the man and put him into the Garden of Eden, to work it [l'ovdah] and to guard it [l'shomra]. (Genesis 2:15)
Rav Soloveitchik, in his book, 'Lonely Man of Faith,' discusses two different conceptions of man based on these verses – not as in opposition to each other, but as complementing each other. He describes "Adam One" as a physical person who works the earth and uses it for his physical needs, to get what he needs out of the earth, whereas "Adam Two," the spiritual side, is the person who experiences pause and awe at the majesty of creation. (In the second story, "Adam Two" goes around the Garden of Eden and names all the animals, forming a relationship with them.) Rav Soloveitchik says that both of these elements are needed for a complete person. If we look at these two aspects of humanity from an environmental perspective, we can see a message that is manifest throughout the Torah. Our responsibility is to use the resources that G-d has given to us, but also to "keep" it (another translation of the word "l'shomra", above) – to use it wisely.
This balance is manifest in the laws of Torah. For example, in the Talmud (Bava Batra), we read that certain industries were restricted in their proximity to residential areas, to protect the residents (the "neighbors") from this early form of pollution. Beyond human beings, we also have a responsibility to protect other species. The mitzvah of "sending away the mother bird before taking her young" (Deuteronomy 22:6-7) is explained by Nachmanides as related to the prohibition against "slaughtering an animal and its kid in one day." He writes:
The reason for these two [prohibitions] is that we should not have a cruel and merciless heart, or that the Torah should not permit us to destroy and uproot a species, even though [the Torah] permits ritual slaughter of this species. One who kills a mother [animal] and her children in one day or who takes them… it is as if she annihilates that species.
Beyond our responsibility to living things, the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit (do not destroy) outlines the prohibition of needlessly destroying anything. Based on a Torah prohibition of cutting down fruit trees in wartime (Deuteronomy 20:19), Maimonides writes, "not only trees, but anyone who smashes household goods, tears clothing, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or wastes articles of food in a destructive manner, is in violation of the command "you shall not destroy." (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, Ch. 6 Laws 8-10) The Sefer HaChinuch explains that this mitzvah is intended "To teach our souls to love the good and the useful and cleave to it; through this, the good will cleave to us…." (Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 529)
We have a midrash that summarizes our responsibility to the world, to protect it and not to destroy it. We learn that when G-d created Adam, He led him around the Garden of Eden and said,
"Look at My works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything that I have created, I created for you. Take care not to damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it after you." (Ecclesiastes Rabbah, 7:28)
Today, our Jewish responsibility calls us to be a keeper not only of our brother, but of all of our fellow inhabitants on the earth, and the precious natural resources that sustain us, for today and for our children's world. Our Jewish tradition has so much to teach us about the importance of protecting this precious world. This Tu b'Shevat, let us commit ourselves to become informed of the environmental challenges we are facing, and to take actions to educate ourselves and our communities to make a difference.
Evonne Marzouk is the founder and Executive Director of Canfei Nesharim, an organization that is dedicated to helping Orthodox Jews, and the entire Jewish community, understand and act on the Jewish laws that are relevant to protecting the environment.
This article is printed as part of the Tu b’Shevat Learning Campaign, sponsored by Canfei Nesharim, an organization that is educating the Orthodox community about the importance of protecting the environment.
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This content originated at Canfei Nesharim.org.
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