Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Mandate for Environmentalism in Israel (Derashah Pinchas 5769)

During the past month, buried beneath headlines on Iran’s vote and then Michael Jackson’s death, environmentalists have taken a giant step forward. Last week the US House of Representatives resolved to cut US emissions, and now the G8 leaders, meeting in Italy, have moved to do likewise; they’re talking about cutting emissions by 80% in the coming decades.

But I would wager that most of us haven’t been following this at all – because the world’s general attention has been focussed elsewhere, and because much of the Jewish community, and particularly the observant Jewish community, tends to ignore environmental issues.

This isn’t true of the entire observant Jewish community, of course; organizations like Canfei Nesharim have done some great work, both in spurring activism and in explaining the Torah foundation for it. But nonetheless, many observant Jews see environmentalism as someone else’s cause, and for a variety of reasons.

• One pragmatic reason environmentalism is not a popular topic is that its proponents are often the same people who malign Israel constantly, while those who challenge it are also strong supporters of Israel and Jewish causes;

• A second reason, also practical, is that we have other, more personally pressing priorities, like Israel, like Jewish continuity and survival, like Jewish education. The rest of the world isn’t doing anything for us on those parochial issues, so we invest our energy in solving those problems and leave the bigger picture to the rest of the world.

• A third reason environmentalism has trouble in our community is that many of its leaders take tendentious scientific positions, relying on research that has not been proven and that has even been disproven, and we Jews are nothing if not a skeptical nation;

And then there’s a fourth, deeper, reason, which is a matter of philosophy.

The gemara records a debate between Rabban Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Yishmael:
• The former argues that a Jew is obligated to spend all of his time in Torah study; as far as earning a living, leave that to Gd, it will all be handled for us.
• Rabbi Yishmael, on the other hand, says that we are supposed to take action, working the fields, holding jobs, before using the rest of our time for Torah.

The gemara does not pasken this shailah; no winner is declared in this perennial debate. But some of us seem to feel that although we do follow Rabbi Yishmael when it comes to earning a living, we should follow Rabban Shimon bar Yochai when it comes to the environment, and rely on Gd to take care of it.

To cite the famous joke in which a prospective son-in-law tells his prospective father-in-law, “Gd will provide,” we tend to play the role of the son-in-law, leaving the fate of the planet in the hands of a benevolent Gd.

In truth, that philosophical idea of non-intervention is consistent with the past three-and-a-half chumashim:

• In Bereishit, Gd did it all personally, creating the world and engineering miracles to send the Jewish people to Egypt.
• In Shemot, Gd intervened to rescue the Jews from Egypt, sending makkot, splitting the sea, and so on.
• In Vayyikra we learned about tzaraat, a miraculous punishment for people who commit evil, and we heard the blessings and curses promising Divine action for and against our nation, depending upon our merit.
• And in the first half of the book of Bamidbar we saw Divine miracles produce water and quail and punish the meraglim and Korach.

For those initial books of the Torah, our responsibility was to fulfill our mitzvot, and Gd would handle the big picture.

But in our parshah, this morning, the charge changed. This morning we were told לאלה תחלק הארץ, this people is going to have a land, and once we became home-owners in Canaan, our responsibilities were forever altered.

Even Rabban Shimon Bar Yochai must agree that we are responsible to take care of that land. This is the mitzvah known as יישוב הארץ, settling the land, and the responsibilities it places upon our shoulders begin in biblical law and continue in rabbinic legislation and the guidance of our sages:

• לאלה תחלק הארץ - Next week the Torah will inform us of the way to build cities in Israel; among other instructions, we will be required to leave spacious parkland around those cities;

• לאלה תחלק הארץ - The gemara notes that numerous rabbinic laws protecting cities, homes and land in Israel.

Many of our mitzvot, biblical and rabbinic, are geared toward ensuring the on-going quality of our land; the Torah and the sages were concerned with the way we would treat our home, to ensure that we would be environmentalists in Israel.

Personally, I consider myself a global environmentalist; I believe that we are responsible not to destroy this world we have been given, not to waste Divine gifts, and not to harm the property of others, but to practice a modern version of Adam and Chavah’s לעבדה ולשמרה to work the land and to preserve it.

But even for those who are turned off by the anti-Israel sentiment of so many in the eco-movement, even for those who serve the many causes which already consume our community’s small resources, even for those who are troubled by the questionable scientific assertions as well as the partisan politics behind them, all of us must agree that the charge in this morning’s parshah, לאלה תחלק הארץ, This nation will have a land, charges us with a responsibility to protect and develop the land of Israel.

For some this happens through aliyah. For others this happens through organizations like JNF, planting a tree or donating for the construction of a reservoir. But for all of us it must happen – יישוב הארץ is our mitzvah.

After HaShem told Moshe about the distribution of Canaan, the daughters of Tzelafchad protested that they wanted a share, that their father’s land should not be absorbed by the rest of the tribe but should remain with them. Their argument won the day.

The gemara says that although Gd was already planning to include the law of a daughter’s inheritance in the Torah anyway, they merited to have it recorded in their name, as “the law of the daughters of Tzelafchad,” because they were the ones who came forth to plead for a share in Israel. There likely were other daughters who did not have brothers – but the daughters of Tzelafchad stepped forward because of their love for Israel, and so their name endures forever.

Gd-willing, we will also display our love for the land of Israel – and our names will be likewise preserved.

1. Yes, I know that there is a machloket on applying Yishuv ha'Aretz as a mitzvah today. For a good start on sources regarding this mitzvah, go here.

2. Bnot Tzelafchad - See Bava Batra 119a on their merit.

3. The talmudic advice on rotating fields is also pragmatic, for the sake of the farmer, but it was the quickest example to hand. There are many more, just as there are many more mitzvot which the rishonim describe as being geared toward preserving the land.


  1. I would suggest another reason why environmentalism has not caught on in the Orthodox world. The term "Tikun Olam" has been used to mean issues such as environmentalism and social justice. The misuse of the term makes certain people be skeptical of said issues.

  2. Do you think the second perek of Bava Basra is a good Torah guide to "environmentalism" or ecology?

  3. There are many religious people inolved in Israel's environmental movement. One of Israel's leading environmental educational organizations was set up by frum people and the Chief Scientist of the Min. of the Environment is a frum man.

  4. Marc-
    Or as a very good friend of mine has said, "They don't speak Orthodox."

    The Talmid-
    Yes, although it is also about harchakat nezikin.


    Interesting; I wasn't aware of this difference between Israel and chul, but it makes sense.

  5. Thanks for this important message. I appreciated your mentioning our work!

    For those who may not be familiar with Canfei Nesharim, our work is engaging synagogues and schools in the Orthodox community across North America, "speaking Orthodox." We're doing a program now called "Warning Signs: Lessons for the Three Weeks." We have program ideas, divrei Torah, a source sheet and discussion guide for synagogues and camps. You can view the program at

  6. Canfei Nesharim -
    You are most welcome; thanks for your work!