Our Earth: To Serve and Preserve
Nearly 20 years ago, the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, wrote an essay on ‘Conservation: Environmental Sustainability’ published in his 2001 book The Dignity of Difference. In it he quoted statistics suggesting that on the basis of our current pace and scope of environmental devastation, ‘half of the world’s 30 million animal and plant species could become extinct in the next century.’
In 2017, I attended the Caux Forum ‘Dialogue on Land & Security’ where the updated prognosis seemed more severe. Delegates were told that each year an amount of land that is three times the size of Switzerland is being lost to deforestation and desertification. And, if significant corrective action isn’t taken in the coming 15-20 years, we could cross a tipping point from which there was no return.
Through the work of naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, we’re all much more aware of the harmful impact disposable plastic is having on our oceans. This article is about communities spreading the message of responsible consumption, both in our personal lives and in our Jewish institutions, schools & synagogues.
At the 30 June launch, Rabbi Mark Goldsmith shared with us some Jewish sources on looking after the natural world. In the Genesis story of Creation (Chap 1:28), man and woman while still in the Garden of Eden, are commanded to be Fruitful and Multiply. But in the re-telling of the story (Chap 2:15), the first man is charged to Serve and Preserve the Garden.
The Jewish cycle of festivals is built around an agricultural calendar. Our weekly cessation of labour on Shabbat, benefits humans and livestock alike. Later in the Torah, G-d tells Moses to instruct the people to treat the environment with care. Landowners are annually obliged to share their bountiful harvests with the poor, widows, orphans and strangers – the dispossessed, so that they too are looked after. They also must let their fields rest every 7th and 50th years. Separately, the Torah commands us not to unnecessarily destroy nature.
In the later interpretive writings of the rabbinic period, we have wonderfully rich passages charging us to maintain G-d’s work, the earth, for ‘if you destroy it, there’s no one to repair it after you.’ We have the 1st century BCE story of Honi the Circle Maker who saw a man planting a carob tree which would take 70 years to reach maturity. He asked if the man expected to live so long to see it bear fruit and was told ‘just as I found trees my ancestors planted, so this is being planted for generations to follow’. Jewish mystics from the 13th century onward, meditated and wrote about compassion and about our duty to develop a higher sensitivity towards all things created – not even to uproot a plant or slaughter an animal unless there was a need.
Perhaps the best way to express this is that human beings are in a position of stewardship to Nature. The earth, according to our tradition, was created by G-d and entrusted to humanity. Since then, the first guardian couple, Adam & Eve, have expanded to more than 7.8 billion people. The dynamics have changed dramatically, and we are at risk of destroying the habitat that supports human life.
So what can we do? First, learn more. Understand where the harmful impacts are coming from and how to reduce them. Second, let’s stop ignoring or denying the severity of the problems. Third, let’s begin an honest assessment of our conduct to see where we can make possible changes. And fourth, let’s encourage our communal institutions to also act more responsibly.
There are few things that can impact all of humanity regardless of race, religion, culture or ethnicity as much as ecological collapse. We believe it is our responsibility to share a message of great concern and to promote a movement for increased awareness and responsibility. Left as is, the trajectory of our decisions and consumption patterns will accomplish the opposite of the generation of Honi the Circle Maker. We will be negligent in our duties of stewardship for this magnificent planet with which the Almighty has graced us, and little or nothing will remain for our descendants.
Perhaps this explains why Mitzvah Day has chosen Ecology as our 2019 social action theme.
Have a wonderful summer!
Rabbi Jeff & the Mitzvah Day Team