Tend to Our Garden

By Daniel Sperber

Published January 17, 2003, issue of January 17, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Tu B’Shvat, which we observe this Saturday, challenges us to think seriously about how we might apply authentic Jewish values to the ecological challenges confronting our planet.

Sadly, some Jews are not involved in this enterprise, even though they observe the traditions, for they identify environmentalism with nonreligious, even anti-religious, elements and instinctively reject them. They recognize that “The Earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) but stress its counterpoint: “He Gave the Earth to the Children of Adam.” (Psalm 115:16) In other words, humanity is the pinnacle of creation and the world is there for us to use and even exploit. The materials that are available to us are for our own pleasure and benefit.

This attitude is gravely mistaken. The first chapter of Genesis, the story of creation, teaches something very important in this regard. The picture of the Garden of Eden with which Genesis presents us is a picture of an ideal ecological state of affairs — fresh air, pure water, gefilte fish available to all! This is the Torah’s ideal vision. One did not have to labor in order to obtain what one wanted. One picked one’s fruit, one ate it, the animals lived harmoniously with the few human beings that were to be found there. Humanity is placed in a framework in which all our needs are readily met. It appears that everything is there to serve us: the trees to feed us, the leaves to clothe us.

But this can lead man to the foolish notion that he is actually the owner. To offset this possible misunderstanding of man’s position, God tells him that there’s one tree, one fruit of which he’s not to partake. This limitation was meant to teach that man is not the master, but is rather only a steward. His mandate is to tend to and preserve the Garden of Eden. He is a “gardener,” neither the owner nor the master.

Adam sinned when he thought that he could take over everything for himself. When he used that which had been forbidden to him, he denied his stewardship and expressed his sense of absolute dominion over the whole of his realm. That was the reason that he had to be expelled. Upon his expulsion, the whole ecological balance was subverted and a new imbalance occurred; weeds and thorns grew.

Nor is Adam the sole example of man’s misguided notion of his position relative to the environment. In Genesis, when God witnessed mankind’s lawlessness there ensued what in modern terms would be called an eco-disaster: a flood. As soon as these basic values were done away with, a disaster fell upon mankind. These messages are very basic to Judaism, and they reverberate throughout the whole of the Halacha, or rabbinic law.

Let us consider one additional example, shemita, or the sabbatical year, the lesson of which is that we do not own the land we think we own. We work it. We’re its stewards. We use it for six years and we come to think of it as our own. But the seventh year, in which we are commanded to leave the land fallow, teaches us that this is not so.

The rabbis tell us the story of Honi Ha-Magel, who saw an old man planting a carob tree and said to him, “How long does it take until you get carobs?”

“Seventy years,” the old man replied, “but I came to the world and I found carob trees that were planted by my grandparents. I am planting trees for my grandchildren.”

The parable advises us not to think only of ourselves and our immediate benefit. We must think ahead precisely because there is a mandate of horashah, of bequeathing: a person must transmit what he has received to coming generations. Because it is not ours, we do not have the right to decline to pass it on to the next generation. The challenges are enormous and cannot be dealt with by a single individual or even a single government. They can only be dealt with on a global level.

One of the great challenges of the present world is population growth and the problems it brings with regard to food production and environmental degradation. Many Jews don’t like to talk about this; we assume that it doesn’t really pertain to us because we’re a small nation that recently lost an enormous portion of its membership. So we push these issues aside and we blind ourselves to what’s going on around us.

But before we search for solutions we have to realize that problems exist. These are arguably the most important challenges facing the global community, and we are part of that community. We cannot make a hole in the boat beneath our own seats, to paraphrase the Midrash, and claim it affects only us. The time has come — indeed, the time came long ago — for the Jewish community to wake up and grapple with these issues.

These are issues that are of a basic Jewish religious-spiritual nature. The message from our classic texts is clear.

Daniel Sperber is professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University, winner of the 1997 Israel Prize and a member of the Israeli government’s Education Committee. He will be speaking at Edah’s Third International Conference February 16-17.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "Aren’t you shvitzing in that?" http://jd.fo/b49Cq To the non-Orthodox, Hasidic clothing looks unbearably hot. But does focusing on someone else’s discomfort reflect our own discomfort with religious dress?
  • An Israel diplomat responds to J.J. Goldberg's stunning revelations about what sparked Gaza was. Is it really 'naive' to report that Hamas was not to blame for teens' kidnappings — or that Israel's own lies forced it to launch onslaught?
  • The origins of Yiddish, part tsvey: Did Yiddish start in the Rhine Valley? http://jd.fo/g4J3F
  • Josh Nathan-Kazis' epic tale of family ambition and failure in Maine is the first in our project to cover 50 states in 50 weeks. What Jewish stories should we cover in your state?
  • “And why should there be Hebrew? I’m not Jewish, I’m a Subbotnitsa.” In 2006, 13 of the 30,000 inhabitants of Sevan, Armenia, were Subbotniks. Now, there are only 10 left: thttp://jd.fo/b4BPI
  • Sigal Samuel started their Dixie road trip in Birmingham, Alabama, where the cab driver has a Bible on his seat and tells them his daddy taught him to respect the Jews. They're sure 'nuff feeling 'chosen' http://blogs.forward.com/forward-thinking/201953/feeling-chosen-in-alabama/?
  • Why Jewish artists continue to be inspired by the Bible: http://jd.fo/q4PRh
  • When filmmaker Nasya Kamrat sought for a way to commemorate the story of her grandfather, a Polish Holocaust survivor, she had an unusual idea: use his paintings for an animated Holocaust documentary. http://jd.fo/p4RGf
  • As part of the Forward's 50-state project, Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel are setting out on a journey through Dixie. To get you in the mood, here’s a brief history of Jewish road trips: http://jd.fo/q4RYl
  • "1. Sex. She had it. She liked it. She didn’t make a big deal of it." What were your favorite Elaine moments on Seinfeld?
  • "Mamie Eisenhower had one, and if you came of age during the 1950s, chances are you had one, too. I’m referring to the charm bracelet, that metallic cluster of miniaturized icons that hung from, and often strained, the wrist of every self-respecting, well-dressed woman in postwar America." Do you have charm bracelet memories? Share them with us!
  • How the Gaza War started — and how it can end:
  • This could be the first ancient synagogue mosaic to feature a non-biblical narrative.
  • "Suddenly we heard a siren, but it was very faint. We pulled the kids out of the pool, and then we heard a big boom."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.