Protecting Nature – Ecology through the Prism of Torah

Preserving the Environment as a Jewish Value

            The past few decades have witnessed the emergence of ecological and environmental awareness, protection of species, and preservation of nature and countryside. Does the Torah address this issue specifically? And how does it relate to Tu Bi-Shvat?

          The Torah relates to the environment as a value and as a necessity on several levels. The most basic level is that of need – protecting the environment as part of the need to preserve a high quality of life, aesthetics, cleanliness, and health.

          In this context, the issue of environmental protection is more properly considered the protection of quality of life, and not the protection of the environment for its own sake. This area would also include the protection of the environment, on behalf of society and the collective, from carelessness and damage caused by stemming from individual members of society who allow themselves to damage and ruin nature and destroy the environment in which we live.

          But there is another, higher level: preserving nature and the environment as an independent value. Protecting the countryside, flora, and fauna from harm in their natural habitats is valuable not merely as the preservation of quality of life, but as the protection and preservation of nature for its own sake; to an extent, nature is powerless next to man, who is sometimes liable to devastate, not preserve, the natural order. A study of Jewish sources reveals two divergent attitudes, corresponding to these two levels. Of course, the more unique and fascinating level is the deeper and broader attitude that views environmental preservation as an independent value! An example that is one of many but nevertheless basic and primary is the duty to preserve nature that was imposed upon Adam in the Garden of Eden.

          By way of introduction to this example, we must begin with a basic principle: if something is basic and essential something to the existence of man and the world, it will appear already at the dawn of history. This is the case with regard to the independent value of environmental protection in Jewish thought.

          The Torah’s description of man’s creation contains three cycles. The first cycle is the personal cycle of man alone, in which the description of his creation is retold. The second cycle is the environmental cycle – the planting of the Garden of Eden and its rivers, and settling man within the garden. The third cycle is the familial cycle – the creation of woman and establishing a family. The fact that the environmental cycle precedes the familiar cycle no doubt speaks for itself and highlights the importance of this matter in the process of creation and in human thought.

          According to the book of Bereishit, man’s first encounter with his Creator, and the first task given to man, was:

And the Lord God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and protect it. And the lord God commanded Adam, saying: “Of every tree of the garden thou may eat.” (Bereishit 2: 15-16)

          In its succinct and cryptic way, the Torah calls man’s duty to protect the trees of the garden “and protect it.” But where the Torah left things unsaid, the Sages expand and describe a sort of guided tour that God gives Adam among the trees in the garden. The purpose of the tour was to train man how to relate to his environment:

“Consider the work of God; for who can make straight what He has made crooked?” When God created the first man he took him, showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And everything that I created, I created for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world, for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.” (Kohelet Rabba 7:13)

          On one hand, man is given the opportunity to use the world and to enjoy its contents. On the other hand, he is charged with using it in moderation, not more, so that he may protect flora and the environment: “Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world.

          This midrash gives expression to man’s vast capacity for influencing his environment, for better or for worse, to advance and nurture, or to devastate and destroy.

          Humanity has been given a precious deposit: the wide, wonderful, complex world, created by God Almighty and embodying His infinite wisdom. It is true that man may use the world for his own sustenance, but exercising this right is liable to make man smug and give him a sense of unrestrained superiority. He is likely, then, to ruin components of this world needlessly. Therefore, the first man, Adam, was commanded to use creation to meet his needs intelligently and cautiously, so that he does not destroy God’s creation.

          This has significance for our thinking, values, and sensibilities. One who contemplates creation should see God’s wonders within nature’s beauty and majesty: “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are!” Nature’s awesomeness should fill him with humility in the presence of the infinite divine source of creation. These meditations should also develop a subtle a subtle attentiveness to the command that has been issuing forth since the dawn of history: “Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world!” This is the source of man’s responsibility for his environment, for his emerging awareness that “if you ruin it, there will be nobody after you to repair it!” It is with this sensibility that man is commanded to protect the environment and the earth proactively.

          The original commandment to protect the environment focused on plant life, the trees in the garden, whether fruit-bearing or not. Therein lies its connection to Tu Bi-Shvat, the new year for trees. The Torah also records the commandment to protect nature, and trees in particular, in context of warfare:

When you besiege a city a long time, making war against it to take it, do not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. Eat from it, but do not cut it down. For man is the tree of the field, so that it may capitulate to your siege. Only the trees that you know are not for food you may destroy and cut down, so that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls. (Devarim 20:19-20)

Rashi (ad loc.) explains that specifically during wartime one must distinguish between a legitimate target and something that lies outside the realm of warfare, whose destruction constitutes devastation and wreckage for its own sake:

“For man is the tree of the field” – the word “ki” serves to pose a question: “Is man the tree of a field that it should capitulate to your siege and be afflicted with hunger and thirst like the people of the city?”

According to Rambam, the prohibition against destroying trees is a paradigm for a prohibition against the needless destruction of anything:

We have been cautioned against destroying trees while besieging a city in order to torment and demoralize its people. About this God said: “do not destroy its trees… Eat from it, but do not cut it down.” Similarly, all types of loss enter into this prohibition. For example: if one burns clothing or breaks a utensil for nothing also violates “bal tashchit” and incurs lashes. It is explained at the end of Makot that one who cuts down good trees incurs lashes, and [the Sages] state that this was cautioned here: “Eat from it, but do not cut it down...” (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Negative Commandment 57)

          There is yet another lesson here: nature belongs to God. He gives it to man to enjoy and utilize for his own existence, but there are boundaries that must not be crossed. Man must not pretend to be nature’s master or use it to serve his whim.

          Occasionally there is tension between progress and development on one hand and the duty to protect nature on the other. Specifically in the modern era, when powerful tools have been developed for man to use to improve his lifestyle and quality of life, there is a danger that such power will be used in a way that harms nature massively and sometimes irrevocably. It is specifically in modern times that we must increase our awareness that “if you ruin it, there will be nobody after you to repair it!” “Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world!

          To that end, we must first and foremost raise awareness that the natural environment is independently valuable. Man must learn not to see nature as a “powerless” asset that can be exploited for whatever one wants. This engenders a particularly modern duty to utilize what the world and nature offer man without damaging them. Educating toward the preservation of plant life and the environment must develop out of a profound understanding of the value of everything created by God. R. Shear-Yashuv Cohen, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa and the son of “the Nazir” R. David Cohen, tells of Rav Kook’s amazing sensitivity toward plants:

We have a well-known tradition not to destroy any plant or tree even when it is not expressly forbidden by the Torah. I heard a story from the sainted Rabbi Aryeh Levin about him and our teacher Rav Kook; he even told me where it took place, but that is for another time. Here is the story:

When I was granted, with God’s kindness, to ascend to the Holy Land, to Yafo, I first went to visit our master, R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who received me with good cheer, as was his custom to receive all people. We discussed various Torah topics. After an early mincha, he went out, as was his custom, for meditative stroll in the fields to gather his thoughts. I accompanied him. Along the way, I picked some grass or a flower. R. Kook was taken and told me gently: “Believe me — my whole life I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or flower needlessly. There is not a single blade of grass below that does not have a heavenly force above telling it: Grow! Every blade of grass tells us something. Every stone whispers some secret. Every creature sings a song.”[1]

[1] R. Shear-Yashuv Cohen, “Cutting Down Trees during Wartime and Peace Time [Hebrew],” Techumin 4. He continues: “The root of this matter is in the holy heights, in numerous sayings from the Sages… There are even more sublime ideas that I heard from my father, the sainted Nazir, and here is not the place to go into detail. We can sum up that it is clear and explicit that according to the inner meaning of the Torah, in accordance with on aggadic teachings and based on moral principles and inner esoteric wisdom (see Tomer Devora – as is known to initiates of esoteric wisdom), there is a general prohibition against harming living plants or trees.” The story also appears in Simcha Raz’s biography of R. Aryeh Levin, A Tzaddik in Our Time, pp. 108-109.

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