– Author: Rav Jonathan Gilbert

Our Sages teach us[1]: “Upon creating the first human beings, God guided them around the Garden of Eden, saying; ‘Look at my creations! See how beautiful and perfect they are! I created everything for you. Make sure you don’t ruin or destroy My world. If you do, there will be no one after you to fix it.”

These words, among the first ever uttered by the Creator to Adam, must have been a great enigma to him. “Me? Destroy Your world? Can such an insignificant creature destroy such majestic creation?” Sadly, 5780 years later, we know the answer. Just how deep does the destruction go? And is there a way back or have we reached the point of no return?

It is hard to assess how much has been ruined. Yet, we have a tradition dating back form King David that “even if a sharp sword rests upon a person´s neck, he should not desist from seeking mercy”.[2] Hopefully, what was said about an individual  person, is true for the world as well.

A day by day analysis of Creation may give us a clue of where we went wrong  and how we can  fix what must be fixed.

Day 1: Creation of Heaven and Earth

The Torah refers to Hashem as “proprietor of heaven and earth”.[3] Rashi explains that by creating the world he also became its owner. Similarly, the pasuk says “The earth and all it contains is God’s”.[4] However, a different pasuk declares “The heavens are God’s and the earth was given over to mankind”[5], implying that the earth is no longer His but ours. The Talmud resolves the contradiction stating that the world is God´s before a blessing is recited, but ours after the blessing is recited.[6]

In simple terms, God, the Creator, is the rightful owner of His world. However, he allows mankind to profit and partake of it through a simple method of acquisition: a blessing. Without it, man is no more than a thief. And yet, when it comes to the worlds resources, we dare to misuse them as if they were our own, as if God has relinquished ownership from His world.

Here is where the problem began and where our most substantial tikun must be made. We have to remember we are not hosts but guests, not owners but trustees.

Behind this approach lies the mitzvah of “bal tashchit”, the prohibition to engage in any forms of senseless damage or waste.[7] Embedding the world with such mindset may be among the most valuable contributions the Jewish people has to offer to a chaotic world.

Day 2: Division of the waters

Three keys were kept in the hands of the Holy One and were not given into hands of any agent. The first of them is rain.[8] In fact, no other element symbolizes as clear as water the relationship between God and man. Torah, the revealed will of God, is usually compared to water.[9]Therefore rain, in a physical and material sense, is usually associated to bracha. The first time Adam prayed to God was for rain.[10] This was the most basic and elementary form of communication. We cannot survive without water.

Our forefathers went for three days in the wilderness with no water and bitterly complained.[11] Our Sages  understood this pasuk as speaking of Torah and, therefore, instituted that it must be read publicly three times a week, so we would  never tarry  three days again without Torah.[12] Torah and water are so intrinsically connected that the mere mention of one by default alludes to the other. And yet, largely, we have despised this connection, in a spiritual and material sense.

Today, unsafe water kills more people each year than war and all other forms of violence combined.[13] With less than 1 percent of the earth’s freshwater accessible to us and an ever increasing demand (one-third greater by 2050), we may soon find ourselves living in a world where a glass of fresh water  becomes a rare commodity, accessible only to the most privileged. Still, 90% of sewage in developing countries is discharged untreated directly into water bodies.[14]

I no longer know which is the parable  and which is the point of reference, but they both point to a similar phenomenon: A detachment from the Source. We became blind to the most essential  foundations of material and spiritual life. Once again, it may be the duty of the Jewish people to teach the way back to the Source.


Day 3: Vegetation

“When people cut down the wood of the tree which yields fruit, its cry goes from one end of the world to the other, yet its voice is inaudible”, says the Midrash.[15] In his memoirs, the beloved Tzadik of Yerushalaim, Rabbi Aryeh Levin, tells a most fascinating encounter he had with Rav Kook in 1905 upon arriving to Israel:

“There I first went to visit our great master Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who received me with good cheer, as it was his hallowed custom to receive everyone. We chatted together on themes of Torah study. After an early minhah he went out, as his hallowed custom was, to stroll a bit in the fields and gather his thoughts; and I went along. On the way I plucked some branch or flower. Our great master was taken aback; and he told me gently, ‘believe me: In all my days I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teachings of the Sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force above telling it, Grow! Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence. Every creation utters its songs.’ Those words, spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply on my heart. From that time on I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for everything.”[16]

We have strayed so far from the ways of our rabbis. Far from taking care not to pluck a blade of grass needlessly, we have allowed for the destruction of half of the tropical forests in the world and, if the current rate of deforestation continues, it will take less than 100 years to destroy all the remaining rainforests on the earth. Globally, around 13 million hectares of forests are lost each year.[17] Saying that the consequences are catastrophic (for global warming, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, water cycle disruption, among others) is an understatement. We must hear, as Rav Kook heard, “the message of the sprout” and “the song of creation” if we are ever to change course.  Time is limited and the deadline is near.

Day 4: Heavenly bodies

Even with all the efforts to curve  consumption of energy, global energy needs are expected to rise 55 per cent by 2030, with fossil fuels remaining the dominant source of energy.[18] By now, it is evident that  burning of fossil fuels, are the cause of serious health complications, including asthma, low lung functionality, chronic bronchitis and cardiovascular diseases. Only in Mexico, according to the World Bank, air pollution kills nearly 33,000 people every year.[19] Most experts agree that the only available solution is a swift change to clean and renewable energies.[20] Solar energy is, by far, the cleanest and most abundant renewable energy source available.[21] Available since day four of creation, clean and abundant, solar energy may (and must) become one of our primary sources of energy.

Rav Zutra taught: “He who covers an oil lamp or who uncovers a kerosene lamp violates the prohibition of Bal Tachshit (Do not destroy)”[22], since by doing so the fuel burns more quickly. That is, according to our Sages, needlessly burning fuel, or even doing so in a less efficient manner, is prohibited by Torah Law. If so, we must become ever more conscious of our energy consumption and, in the way, inspire other to do so.


Day 5: Fish, reptiles and birds

Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970.[23] Humans represent just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals, according to recent research.[24] Many scientists believe we are at the beginning of a process of mass extinction, one caused mainly by man’s arrogance. At least 10,000 species are assumed to become extinct every year[25] and, with every one of them, an unreturnable piece of Divine Wisdom is forever lost.

Hashem prohibited several mixtures of animal and vegetable species, generically known as kilaim. Although some commentators consider it a “chok”, that is, a mitzvah whose logic us unfathomable to human beings[26], others see in kilaim a deep theological statement. The Ramban, for example, argues that “one who crosses two species together, changes and denies [God’s] act of creation, as if he is thinking that the Holy One, blessed be He, did not perfect His world completely, and he wants to help with His creation of the world [by] adding creatures to it”.[27]

In other words, Hashem demands from us an attitude of deep humility when dealing with His creation. We may not add species by mix breeding or grafting since this may lead us to incorrectly think, there is something missing in the world as it is. God’s world was created with infinite wisdom and it would be simply dumb to mess with it; how much more so to destroy it!

We know even the most insignificant creature was created for a purpose or, in the words of Rabi Acha bar Rabbi Hanina: “everything you see as superfluous in this world–like snakes and scorpions–are part of the greater scheme of the creation of the world.”[28] Many painkillers, for example, are made from snails, snake venom and frog skin. In fact, around 25% of all drugs are derived from rainforest species, the same rainforest we may see completely destroyed in our children’s lifetime.[29]

The Midrash tells us how King David, long before becoming king, felt perplexed by the apparently pointless creation of spiders. God’s answer came many years later when, fleeing from the army of King Saul and with no place to hide, David entered a cave. The soldiers approached the cave but, miraculously, did not enter it, saving the future king’s life. Suddenly David understood; while hiding, a large spider had spun its web across the opening, giving the impression nobody had entered through that opening in a very long time. The most vicious of species had saved the greatest of all kings![30]

If we are to survive, we must teach our children to approach the creation with awe and humility. After all, “How many are the things You have made, oh Lord; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations!”[31]

Day 6: Man

Why was Man the last among creations? “So that if a person becomes haughty, God can say to him: ´the mosquito preceded you in the acts of Creation, as you were created last´… Alternatively, he was created on Shabbat eve, after all of the other creations, in order that he enter into the feast immediately, as the whole world was prepared for him. This is comparable to a king of flesh and blood, who first built palaces and improved them, and prepared a feast and afterward brought in his guests”.[32]

That is, mankind´s role in Creation can be inferior to the mosquito or as guests of honor to the King. Similarly, our Sages explain God’s words “They shall rule (ur’du) the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth”, in two opposing ways. “If he merits, he rules over the beasts and over the cattle. If he does not merit, he becomes subservient to them, and the beast rules over him.” [33] Once again, either we are the pinnacle of  Creation or its nadir. When Man makes proper use of the world, he is at the top of it; but when he destroys it pointlessly, he hits rock bottom.

It is said that the great Reb Simhah Bunim of Peshischa taught that a person must always have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”  But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”[34] So must our attitude towards the world be. When dealing responsibly with it, we can happily declare “For my sake was the world created!” But when we don’t (as we usually don’t) we must also remember that “I am but dust and ashes.


Day 7: Shabbat

Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch said that “even the smallest work done on the Sabbath is a denial of the fact that God is the Creator and Master of the world. It is an arrogant claim of man that he is his own master. It is a denial of the whole task of the Jew as man and as Israelite, which is nothing but the management of the earth according to the will of God.”[35]

Somewhere along the way we forgot we are not really in charge. We tend to think our whole world would just crumble if we  just let go for one day, and with an ever increasing interconnectedness, this illusion is only strengthened. But Shabbat comes to remind us that this is all it is: an illusion.

Shabbat allows us to take a step back and regain perspective. For a few hours a week we can abandon Adam I mode (the functional, the pragmatic, the utilitarian, the conqueror) and slip into Adam II mode (the contemplative, the introspective, the compliant).[36] This is not just a matter of personal fulfilment but of physical survival.

I strongly believe that at the heart of the environmental crisis lies a spiritual and moral crisis. We have strayed so far away from the purpose of Creation that we act in ways that are irrational and, quite frankly, suicidal. We abuse natural resources because we have unnatural desires for the material. We pollute the world because we see nothing sacred in it. We manipulate it obsessively because we have no trust in the Infinite Wisdom behind it.

Although an a halachic date in reference to agriculturein its origins, Tu Bishvat has come to represent the connection of the Jew with nature and the environment. Today, more than ever, it is our duty to provide the moral foundation for new and healthier approaches. Only by delving deep into our Torah we will find the proper directives to lead the way. May it be the Will of the Almighty that we succeed in such sacred enterprise.

Tu B’Shvat Sameach!

[1] Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13

[2] Brachot 10a

[3] Breshit 14:19

[4] Tehillim 24:1

[5] Tehillim 115:16

[6] Brachot 35a

[7] Dvarim 20:19

[8] Taanit 2a

[9] For example, see Baba Kama 82a

[10] Rashi to Breshit 2:5

[11] Shmot 15:22

[12] Baba Kama 82a

[13] Natural Resources Defense (www.nrdc.org)

[14] UNESCO (www.unesco.org)

[15] Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 34.

[16] “A tzaddik in our time – the life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin” Raz, Simcha. Feldheim Publishers, 2008.

[17] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (www.fao.org)

[18] The International Energy Agency (www.iea.org)

[19] Available at: www.copenhagenconsensus.com/publication/mexico-perspective-air-pollution

[20] For a lengthy treatment of the topic, see United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (https://unfccc.int/)

[21] Solar Energy Industries Association (www.seia.org)

[22] Shabat 67b

[23] World Wildlife Fund (www.wwf.org.uk/updates/living-planet-report-2018)

[24] “The biomass distribution on Earth”. Yinon M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips, Ron Milo- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jun 2018.

[25] World Wildlife Fund (www.wwf.org)

[26] See, for example, Rashi to Vayikra 19:19

[27] Ramban to Vayikra 19:19

[28] Midrash Rabah Shemot 10:1

[29] “Nature’s pharmacy: The remarkable plants of the Amazon rainforest – and what they may cure”, Holland, Jackie. The Telegraph, 19/05/2019.

[30] Ben Sira 23b, Otzar Midrashim 47

[31] Tehillm 104:24

[32] Sanhedrin 38a

[33] Rashi, Breshit 1:26 (from Midrash Rabbah 8:12)

[34] “Quest for Authenticity – The thought of Reb Simhah Bunim”. Rosen, Michael. Jerusalem, Urim Publications, 2008.

[35] “Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances” Samson Raphael Hirsch. The Soncino Press, 1981.

[36] See “The Lonely Man of Faith” by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

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