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Protecting the Environment – and Israel #695

10/01/2021 06:09:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Bereshit
“The Lord God took the man and took him into the Garden of Eden, to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15)

Portocecting the Environment — and Israel

On a clear evening in August 2008, I found myself standing on a friend’s deck in the ancient and mystical city of Sefat, Israel.

He is a Kabbalistic scholar, and, together, we watched the glorious glow of the sun as it set behind the mountains, where, for thousands of years, mystics have gathered to absorb God’s sacred spirit.

As Shabbat approached, and the sun completed its descent, I could hear the early refrains from the surrounding Orthodox synagogues as the chanting began of the initial prayers welcoming the Sabbath. 

My friend turned to me and sighed, “What a wonderful world this is. It’s the last one we’ll get.”

Lost in the radiance of that stunning scene, I turned my head and asked with some confusion, “The last one we’ll get?”

He replied: “Mystic tradition teaches that there were six worlds, which preceded this one. This is the last one we get — maybe our last chance.”

The finality of his teaching struck a chord within me then that continues to this day, inspiring me each year, as we begin reading this week’s Torah portion and its account of creation.

For as we read this Torah portion, Genesis, we cannot help but be moved by what a true gift this planet is.

Yet, perhaps even in ancient times, there was concern that how much could be drawn from the earth was limited.

The Torah teaches:

“The Lord God took the man and took him into the Garden of Eden, to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15)

Notes the Etz Chayim biblical commentary: “The requirement that we preserve nature even while we use it underlies classical and contemporary concern for ecology in Jewish law and thought.”

It also begs the question — as we enter the 5782nd year of Jewish concern for the state of the world — “How are we doing?”

Not well, by all accounts.

Shorelines are disappearing as polar caps melt and waters rise. The quality of air, earth and water concerns all of us.

For a number of years, before becoming a rabbi, I worked as a senior advisor to two Canadian environment ministers. I have seen with my own eyes the deterioration of northern regions and coastlines.

So what do we do? Or perhaps a more relevant question: “Can we turn this around?

During the latter part of the 20th century, the quality of rivers running through many American cities became a grave concern. Gladly, many communities have reversed that course.

How interesting that the single nation perhaps most committed to watching over and improving the earth, is the country at the core of the Bible: Israel.

Israel is an undisputed leader in the development of cell phones, computers and GPS technology — to name a few. And, a high percentage of these advances are related to medical advancements, and — perhaps equally significant — the environment.

In his inspiring book, Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World, author Avi Jorisch recounts the story of how Israeli innovation is helping to protect the environment, feed the hungry, cure the sick, protect the defenseless, and make the desert bloom.

“Israel is playing a disproportionate role in helping solve some of the world’s biggest challenges by tapping into the nation’s soul: the spirit of tikkun olam the Jewish concept of repairing the world,” he notes.

It is inspiring that so many of the thousands of Israeli tech projects focus on “working and watching over” the earth: natural pesticides, garbage bags that decompose, sewage that can be purified enough to drink, batteries that are biodegradable, and Watergen — a product that literally pulls drinking water from the air. (We are currently fund raising to purchase one for our congregation.)

Through his book — a must read — Jorisch notes that many of these innovators are not particularly observant in their religious practice, but somewhere in their DNA is the interest and commitment to help repair the world.

We have just completed the holiday of Succoth where, in ancient times, it was traditional for 70 bulls to be sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Why such a large number?  

The medieval commentator, Rashi, connects the 70 sacrifices to the number of nations the Torah identified on earth. Rashi explains that the 70 bulls were sacrificed “so that rain will fall across the world because we are judged on this holiday for water.”

In other words, not only did we pray for rain for Israel, but for all nations.

Indeed, we as Jews assume a responsibility to repair not only our corner of the world, but all of humanity. It is one reason — according to our commentators — that we spent so much time in Egypt. It was to develop a nation of empathy — both spiritually and physically.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us of the fragility of the world — so much so that God placed it within the biblical narrative.

During these times of environmental degradation — at a time when profiteers insist there is no problem — we need to look no further than Israel.

Every one of us should be aware of this incredible miracle too frequently ignored by the media.

As my friend taught me on that evening 13 years ago, this is the last world we will inherit. The good news is, we possess the ability to reverse even the worst trends.

Yes, there are many spiritual and political areas at home and around the world currently in need of repair. But as the Torah teaches us this week — our earthly walk must begin by protecting God’s creation.

In the beginning, God created the heaven and earth. But ultimately, it is humanity’s responsibility to respect and protect that sacred creation.

It is one more reason to stand behind this nation of miracles. For it has placed the earth and all of its inhabitants on a parallel path with its own survival.

As we enter into this new year, let us commit, invest and otherwise support the fulfillment of the biblical command to “take care of the earth.”

Let us recycle, re-use and respect.

For the fate and survival of humanity may very well depend on how well we observe this commandment.

As the Torah inspires us to consider, as it was “in the beginning” so must it be today, as we ask, “How can we repair the world? How can help others? How can we take care of the earth?”

The fate of this seventh and final world may ultimately depend upon it.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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