Mending the world, renewing the sacred balance: A Jewish perspective

Based on an interview with Arliene Botnick

April 2004

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The most basic ecological teaching of Judaism is that humanity is made from the earth: adam (humankind) is formed out of adamah (earth, soil). We are connected with the Earth from the moment of our creation.

The whole of the Earth is a gift from God. As Psalm 24 says, "The Earth is God's and all that is in it." The Earth is not our possession; it belongs to God. We are not meant to dominate the Earth, but to care for it.

In the Talmud there is a story about an old man who was planting a carob tree as a king rode by.
"Old man," the king called out, "how old are you?"
The man replied, "Seventy years old, your majesty."
"How long before that tree you are planting will bear fruit?"
"About 70 years or so," the old man replied.
"Do you expect to eat the fruit of the tree you are planting?" the king asked.
"Of course not, your majesty, but I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted for me. And so I will do for my children and grandchildren."

Similarly, a rabbinical commentary on Leviticus 19:23 teaches that:
"When you come into the land, you shall plant all manner of trees for food. Even though you will find it full of all good, do not say that we shall sit idly by and not plant by ourselves. Rather, be careful to fulfil the obligation of planting. Just as you entered and found plants that had been planted by others, you too must plant for your children."

These texts teach us that we must care for the Earth for future generations. We must look ahead and see the consequence of our actions—and not only think about our immediate benefit.

Judaism is rooted in the cycle of the seasons. We use a lunar/solar calendar and are conscious of the ebb and flow of the seasons. At the festival of Tu B'Shevat, we celebrate the new year of the trees with a Seder meal that reconnects us with the fruits of the Earth. We also connect the Torah—the Divine Law—with the image of the Tree of Life. Some mystics use the image of a tree rooted in heaven, drawing God's blessings down and renewing the Earth.

At the festival of Sukkot, we live in three-sided huts made of wood and thatch, open to the stars above. This reminds us that we must be thankful, first and foremost, not for the dwellings that we have made, but rather for the habitation of God's world.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) taught that, "Every blade of grass has its own tune. And from the tunes of the blades of grass, a melody is composed." Creation manifests the beauty of God.

Unfortunately, we have lost sight of this sacred balance. We take the beauty and goodness of the Earth for granted. There is a saying that, "If the sun weren't to rise tomorrow, then we would realize how important the rising of the sun is." We take for granted the gift of the air, water and land. Creation is amazing, but it can only remain so if we act as partners with God in maintaining it.

In Judaism, we speak of "Tikkun olam"—our responsibility to work for the mending of the world as partners with God. We must undertake this responsibility in the land where we live, in this here and now. We are all called to renew the sacred balance that God created.

Arliene Botnick has been the Director of Education at the Solel Reform Jewish Synagogue in Mississauga, Ontario, for the past 17 years.

On Tu B'Shevat
when spring comes
An angel descends
ledger in hand
and enters each bud, each twig
each tree and all our garden flowers.
From town to town
from village to village
the angel makes a winged way
searching the valleys
inspecting the hills
flying over the desert
and returns to heaven.
And when the ledger will be full
of trees and blossoms and shrubs
when the desert is turned into
a meadow
and all our land a watered garden
the Messiah will appear.

By Israeli poet Shin Shalom
Read at the festival of Tu B'Shevat

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