Lately we hear a lot of buzz about the environment. There is endless discussion in the news about the environmental damage humans are causing to wildlife habitats and bodies of water. Every major city seems to have a cloud of smog above it that won't go away. All over the world, scientists are announcing statistics which say if we don't do something quickly, imminent disaster looms on the horizon.
On the flip side, the new trend is "going green." More and more product packages contain language about being "made from recycled material," "biodegradable," or "earth friendly." Everyone is talking about taking care of the earth.
Many believers today are left scratching their heads. They don't really know whether to jump on the bandwagon or dismiss most of it as left-wing propaganda. But originally taking care of the earth was neither a liberal fad nor a slick marketing idea to sell more expensive products; instead it was, and still is, a principle that began with the Torah itself. Good stewardship of the precious gift that HaShem has given us—planet earth—is one of the Bible’s foundational principles.
In the Beginning
And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth." (Genesis 1:28)
In the Garden of Eden, man is commanded not only to reproduce and fill the earth but to "subdue" and "have dominion over" it as well. Man is the principle of creation, and it is to him alone, out of all his creatures, that God communicates. He alone will partner with God in the administration and management of the earth. But there is another side to this:
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15)
Man is to tend to the earth as well. The word translated here as "keep" is the Hebrew word shamar (שמר), which means to "guard" or "protect." Man’s rule is not without restraint; rather he must care for creation in his domination. Rav Joseph Soloveitchik sees in these two passages a sort of dual nature of mankind. Ilana Stein summarizes his views:
Thus, there is a conflict built into the very essence of the human-Nature relationship. On the one hand, we are meant to utilize and exploit Nature. Considered the pinnacle of Creation, the world was created for our use, to conquer and manipulate. On the other hand, we are merely custodians of a perfect, divinely created world. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden to nurture and protect it.1
In the creation, God gives man authority, but the authority comes with a warning as well. He must care for the special gift that God has given him. If God does not care whether we destroy creation, then we declare that there is no real inherent value in the present that he bestowed upon us. The midrash has HaShem warning mankind about the dangers of harming the earth.
When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first man, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him, "Behold My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! All that I have created, I created for you. Pay heed that you do not damage and destroy My universe; for if you damage it there is no one to repair it after you." (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:20)
The Importance of Creation
Creation itself reveals God and his strength and authority. The Scriptures are replete with words of praise for the wonders of the earth. For example the Prophet Isaiah tells us:
Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing. (Isaiah 40:26)
Psalm 104, traditionally referred to Barchi Nafshi ("My soul bless"), is recited every Rosh Chodesh at morning prayers. It is filled with the imagery depicting the majesty of nature:
You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains ... The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them ... You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills; they give drink to every beast of the field .... Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches. From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. (Psalm 104:6-13)
The beauty of creation proves that God cares for man and desires to provide for him. The Master uses the simple illustrations of flowers and birds to speak of God’s benevolence.2
Creation inspires man to bless the Creator, and creation itself actually sings a song back to God. We read in the Psalm 148 of waters, mountains, hills, beasts, and birds all singing songs of praise to HaShem. Psalm 96:12 declares, "Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy." With every movement, every chirp, every rustle in the wind, nature is calling out to the One from whom they came forth.
Additionally, creation reveals the very knowledge of God. An ancient rabbinic teaching says that God created the world with the Torah.3 The Torah itself is the blueprint for creation. In turn, nature and the earth reveal God’s innermost wisdom because they have been patterned after it. Hence we find Paul claiming that God’s "invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made" (Romans 1:21).
For us, as believers in the Messiah Yeshua, we know that the Torah became flesh in the person of Yeshua, and that through this Eternal Word, (the Living Torah) the world was created. John tells us, "All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:3). The Apostle Paul echoes this sentiment:
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:16)
When we piece all this together, we can truly agree with the Psalmist: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19:1). Nature reveals to us not only the depth of God’s wisdom as is found in the Torah; it also reveals to us the glory of God in Messiah.4 Should we not seek to preserve and care for such a precious revelation?
In Jewish tradition we find an important, all-encompassing principle called tikkun olam (תִּיקּוּן עוֹלָם). The expression tikkun olam, which is first found in the Mishnah, is the key term for the idea of healing and restoring the world. It means continuing the work that Adam set out to do at creation. It is used in the context of observing mitzvot such as Shabbat, bringing social justice, and freeing slaves. It even finds its way into the daily liturgy in the Aleinu prayer, which has a heavy focus on the Messianic Age:
Therefore, we will hope in You, O LORD our God, to see quickly the majesty of Your strength, to cause idolatry to pass from the earth, and the idols will be utterly cut down, to repair the world (tikkun olam) in the kingdom of Shaddai.
Tikkun olam is the idea that we are preparing the world for the Messianic Era. Although it is the Almighty who will finally complete the healing process, we can prepare the world for the Messianic Age by doing our best with God’s help to begin the work of restoration now. Tikkun olam fits perfectly within the context of caring for the environment. When we care for God’s earth, we are, first, continuing Adam’s work of guarding and keeping the creation, and, second, we are undoing and repairing some of the damage that fallen man has already inflicted upon it.
Peter tells us that when we live "lives of holiness and godliness" that we are actually "hastening the coming of the day of God."5 This is very much like the idea of tikkun olam. When we bring healing to the earth, it is just one more step not only in preparation for but in actually quickening the Second Coming of our Master.
Surprisingly, then, the environmental movement is nothing new. Modern society is attempting to create new habits and practices that will help preserve and repair the earth, but God has already laid out important instruction for us about preserving his creation in his Torah commandments.
One of the central commandments that teaches us about caring for the earth is the mitzvah of bal tashchit, "you shall not destroy."
When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls. (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)
This passage refers specifically to fruits trees in a time of war, but the sages extracted from it an import principle that taught against the needless destruction of anything. Rabbinic teaching extended the principle to all of nature, food, clothing, vessels, and even fuel.6 The sages taught that God created everything with a purpose and that senseless destruction of anything is tantamount to idolatry.7 We even find the Master carrying out this principle in his concern for leftover scraps of bread. He tells his disciples, "Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost" (John 6:12).
Rabbi Hirsch calls bal tashchit "the first and most general call of God."8 Although the world was put in our care, it is ultimately the property of HaShem. When we destroy creation, it is as if we are denying God. Rabbi Yehuda Levi writes:
The commandment "do not destroy" can be seen as a direct outgrowth of our custodianship of the world. First and foremost, it means that we should be aware of the ownership rights of the Master of the Universe by showing respect for anything of value in His world. The converse of this obligation is expressed by the prohibition against needlessly ruining any object. Any wanton destruction, whether through disdain or frivolity, is damage to God’s property.9
The general principle we learn is that destruction of something must be for a constructive purpose such as cutting down a tree to build a house, or slaughtering an animal for food. Yet, even then we must do everything with great care.
Throughout history, no sage seemed to embody bal tashchit better than the first chief rabbi of modern Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Rabbi Aryeh Levin tells a story about going on an afternoon walk with Rav Kook. Along the way Rabbi Levin casually plucked a branch as they were talking. Taken aback, Rav Kook gently rebuked him:
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 teaching of our Sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force (or angel) above telling it, Grow! Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some inner, hidden message in the silence. Every creation utters its song (in praise of the Creator).10
A modern-day outgrowth of bal tashchit is the practice of recycling. The ancients would be aghast to see how much our world discards in the trash. In days of old, people reused and repurposed everything. Throwing away old clothes, containers, food scraps, etc. would have been unthinkable to people even just one hundred years ago. Torah life has us limit the amount of waste we produce and reuse as much as we can. Recycling is not just a good idea; it is a mitzvah.
Other Environmental Mitzvot
In addition to instructing us not to destroy, the Torah teaches us other things about caring for the environment. For example we learn of the commandments concerning letting the land lie fallow in the Sabbatical year. Exodus 23:10-11 states:
For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow ... You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.
This is then repeated in the fiftieth year, the Jubilee, as well.11 Not only does this teach us the important lesson that the earth ultimately belongs to the creator but it may have scientific benefits on the land as well. Rambam points out:
The land will also increase its produce and improve when it remains fallow for some time. (Guide for the Perplexed 3:39)
Letting the earth rest every seven years allows for it to replenish its nutrients, bringing benefit to future crops. But it takes learning the discipline of patience and trust in God’s provision, learning that the earth is not an inexhaustible resource.
There is also the commandment to bury waste outside the camp:
And you shall have a trowel with your tools, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it and turn back and cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:13)
Although the immediate context is removing anything indecent from the camp because God’s presence moves among Israel, once again we can find a larger principle of properly disposing of waste and pollution. In rabbinic law, this rule extends to all of Israel’s settlements, and not just the army or the camp in the wilderness.12 Commenting on this mitzvah, the Sefer HaChinnuch gives it own version of "cleanliness is next to Godliness":
It is well and widely known that cleanliness is one of the virtues that leads to the holiness of mind. (Sefer HaChinnuch, Commandment 566)
Litter and pollution are not only unsightly to the eye, but a transgression of Torah and an impediment to godliness.
We also read in Numbers 35 of the commandment to have a green belt around Levitical cities of two thousand cubits. These open fields were never to be sold. They belonged to the Levites in perpetuity.13 This principle was later applied to all settlements so that cities should not be turned into fields and fields should not be turned into cities.14 Ilana Levine writes:
This is possibly one of the earliest mentions of environmental planning in history, commanding that there be greenery around a city—similar to today’s concept of creating parks as 'green lungs' within a city.15
The Torah taught going green long before it was trendy. Rabbi Hirsch raves about the social and environmental benefits of such a practice:
Hence it is town-bred intelligence and culture combined with the natural uncomplicated outlook of life fostered by living in close contact with nature which is the effect which the great penetrating statute tends to produce as the predominating characteristic of the inhabitants of Israel. (Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 25:34)16
The Torah also teaches us that we are not to cause damage to another person’s property. For example in Exodus we learn of the consequences of our fellow’s ox falling in a pit we dug and neglected to cover. The Torah assigns responsibility to a party who starts a fire that ends up destroying a neighbor’s field.17 Once again Jewish law finds an overarching principle that extends these regulations to include damage caused by smoke, water, sewage, odors, and dust.18 One extension includes a prohibition on moving stones from your personal property to public land. The Talmud gives a story of a man who did this that illustrates the sometimes unforeseen consequences of our actions:
A certain man was removing stones from his ground on to public ground when a pious man found him doing so and said to him, "Fool, why do you remove stones from ground which is not yours to ground which is yours?" The man laughed at him. Some days later he had to sell his field, and when he was walking on that public ground he stumbled over those stones. He then said, "How well did that pious man say to me, 'Why do you remove stones from ground which is not yours to ground which is yours?'" (b.Bava Kama 50b)
Our poor stewardship over the environment will affect our children in generations to come. Yeshua taught us that loving our neighbor is one of the two greatest commandments.19 This surely encompasses the prohibition of not causing our fellow harm. We should be concerned about our treatment of this earth not just for ourselves but for the impact it will have on others, no matter how far into the future.
In Ezekiel 47 we read of Ezekiel’s vision of a stream of water that flows forth from Jerusalem and brings life back into waters which had been previously dead. Rabbi Levi points out that the Hebrew there suggests that these waters had been polluted.20 He also notes the Talmudic concept that "water signifies Torah."21 Symbolically, perhaps this means that, in the Messianic Age, the Torah that will flow forth from Jerusalem and will bring healing to that which has been polluted, both spiritually and physically. The works of the "destroyers of the earth" of Revelation 11:18 will be undone once and for all.
Over fifty years ago, the great Christian theologian C.S. Lewis predicted the increase of science and technology in the next generation, but he also saw that it had the potential to have a negative impact on the earth and its resources. He states that we will have a choice "either to husband, or to waste, the resources of the planet more extensively."22 Today, we indeed face these choices. We trust that God will restore all things in the Messianic Age. If so, we should be partnering in that important process right now. The Master’s words should sink in deeply as we contemplate how we care for HaShem’s creation: "And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?" (Luke 19:12).
As followers of Messiah and his eternal Torah, we are called to care for God’s creation and to take care of that which God has given us. The Torah is the ultimate key for bringing tikkun olam to his earth.
- Ilana Stein "Le'ovda Uleshomra: Judaism and the Environmental Ethic," in Compendium of Sources in Halacha and the Environment (ed. Ora Sheinson and Shai Spetgang; Jerusalem, Israel: Canfei Nesharim, 2005), 16-20.
- Matthew 6:26-29.
- m.Avot 3:14.
- John 1:14.
- 2 Peter 3:11-12.
- For example see b.Berachot 50b and b.Shabbat 67b.
- m.Avot 4:3; b.Shabbat 77b, 105b.
- Horeb, 56: 397. Translation from Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances (trans. Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld; New York: Soncino, 2002), 279.
- Rabbi Yehuda Levi "Ecological Problems: Living on Future Generations' Account," in Compendium of Sources in Halacha and the Environment (ed. Ora Sheinson and Shai Spetgang; Jerusalem, Israel: Canfei Nesharim, 2005), 21-27.
- Simcha Raz, A Tzaddik in Our Time: The Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin (Nanuet, NY: Feldheim Publishers, 1976), 108.
- Leviticus 25.
- y.Eruvin 5:2.
- Leviticus 25:34.
- Sefer Zeraim, Hilchot Shemitah v'Yovel 13:5.
- Stein "Le'ovda Uleshomra: Judaism and the Environmental Ethic," 18.
- Translation from The Pentateuch: Translated and Explained by Samson Raphael Hirsch (7 vols.; trans. Isaac Levy; Gateshead: Judaica Press, 1999).
- Exodus 21:33-36, 22:6.
- Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 155.
- Matthew 22:39.
- Rabbi Yehuda Levi "Ecological Problems: Living on Future Generations' Account," 27.
- b.Bava Kama 17a.
- C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 312.