Tend to Our Garden

By Daniel Sperber

Published January 17, 2003, issue of January 17, 2003.
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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.

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