Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 24 #18 in the countdown – Bal Tashchit – Environmentalism / Shmita – Sabbatical Year

Elul 24  #17 in the countdown – Bal Tashchit – Environmentalism  / Shmita – Sabbatical Year

How astounding it is that the Torah derived its basic value of conservation, the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit, from of all things, the rules of warfare.  Deuteronomy states that when besieging a city we should not cut down trees (“for is the tree a human that you would besiege it too?”).  It’s fascinating also to witness how the rabbis broadened that law’s scope to address all sorts of gratuitous destruction in civilian life.  This mitzvah is particularly relevant as we witness all kinds of wanton ruination perpetrated in our own societies.

 In the words of environmental activist Nigel Savage, “You could argue that the Jewish people have been thinking about sustainable energy ever since God spoke to Moses out of a bush that burned but was never consumed. Moses was perhaps the first environmentalist: He recycled his staff into a snake, got Egypt to turn off all its lights for three days, and convinced an entire nation to go on a 40-year nature hike.  The Maccabees took a small cruse of oil and stretched it out for eight miraculous nights.”

A midrash states that when Adam, on the day of his creation, saw the setting of the sun and was terrified. He said, “Oy Vey! OMG. It’s because I have sinned that the world around me is becoming dark; the universe will now become again void and without form — this then is the death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he sat up all night fasting and weeping and Eve was weeping opposite him. When dawn broke, however, he breathed a sigh of relief and said: ‘This is the usual course of the world!’

            From the very first sunset, as darkness enveloped them and Adam and Eve were only a few hours old, they experienced the first pangs of Jewish guilt in recorded history. They sensed that they had somehow let God down, that this darkness thing was somehow their fault, that they had already messed up the marvelous gift that they had been given.

            The Midrash elaborates - God leads Adam around the Garden of Eden, God says, "Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you."

            That’s what God tells Adam and Eve.  When giving the world’s first garden tour, they are warned:  This is a beautiful world.  But this is it.  Don’t mess this up.  Because if you do, there could come a time when that sun will not rise at the end of a cold, dark night.  And if that happens, it will not be my fault, God says, it will be yours.

            And as if to underscore that point, God creates a sign a few generations later, following the great flood of Noah.  The rainbow is the symbol of the covenant that God made with humanity; that God will never again bring about the kind of massive natural disaster that could destroy humanity.  The implied message is that we not only are the earth's custodians - but if we break it, we own it.  If we can't make things work on this beautiful planet, we have only ourselves to blame. 

           Added to this is the Torah's concept of a Sabbatical year, every seventh year when the land lies fallow.  While this applies only to the land of Israel, it has global implications.  See this pdf explaining the Jewish values embedded in Shmitta and this overview of Shmitta principles, plus these core texts and thought questions by Hazon - as the New Year we are entering, 5775, is going to be a Shmitta year.

                  This Top 40 is being sent to you on the day when throngs will be marching in New York to express concern about Climate Change in the People's Climate March.  i will be there as well.   Judaism, on so many levels, connects us to the rhythms of nature.  Rab Nachman's prayer expresses that deep connection.

Rabbi Nachman’s Prayer

Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone.
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grasses,
Among all growing things,
There to be alone and enter into prayer.
There may I express all that is in my heart,
Talking with Him to whom I belong.
And may all grasses, trees and plants
Awake at my coming.
Send the power of their life into my prayer,
Making whole my heart and my speech through the life and spirit of growing things,
Made whole by their transcendent Source.
Oh!  That they would enter my prayer!
Then would I fully open my heart in prayer, supplication and holy speech;
Then, O God, would I pour out the words of my heart before Your Presence.

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