The Jewish celebration of trees, nature and the Land, Tu BiShevat, is just around the corner (Feb. 8). What is our teaching regarding the proper care for the Earth?
According to Hebrew Bible, Genesis 2:15, God's primary purpose in creating the human was to work and guard the Earth. In an age of ubiquitous development, how is a Jew to understand this command?
Chapter 2 of Genesis marks a second kind of creation story. Rather than focusing on the cosmos, the sun and moon and stars, and the order of the days of creation, this chapter is decidedly different. "When the Lord God made earth and heaven - When no shrub of the field was yet on the earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil, but a flow would well up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth - the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being." [Gen. 2:4b-7]
Unlike the first chapter of Genesis, this creation posits a bare world into which God places the human. Only then is the Garden of Eden created in verse 8, and the human placed into the garden. And trees immediately follow. Rivers and Rules are presented, and in verse 15 we read "The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it (לעבדה ולשמרה )."
From this first text it is crystal clear that our relationship with the Earth has three components: (1) We belong on the Earth as part of the divine purpose of the Universe, (2) We are to "till" or "work" the Earth, and (3) we are to "tend" or to "keep/guard" the Earth.
Another core Biblical value is בל תשחית - to not destroy useful things. This is derived from Deuteronomy 20:19 - When, in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its [fruit] trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?! Sustaining the productivity of the land trumps your need for firewood, arrows or wood for siege engines. The Rabbinic system over the last 2,000 years has applied this law to any act of senseless destruction or wasteful use.
Judaism's view of humanity is that of the faithful steward, using the natural world for our benefit is a manner which keeps it healthy and well. It would not be in keeping with Judaism to cut down entire forests for hardwood or development. But it would definitely be within Jewish values to support widespread logging in forests that are being managed as renewable resources. Ultimately we are responsible for the Earth, but only God is in charge of it. We are the project managers for the Boss.
In West Orange, NJ, this month, our wonderful local Essex County Park "South Mountain Reservation" is implementing a "deer management program," which is a common controlled hunt to thin the wild herds to manageable levels. While in Judaism we do not hunt, we can nonetheless support this program. Its purpose is the healthy herd, and healthy land management. Take a walk through the trails of South Mountain, which are well maintained and marked. You will see in certain areas large fenced enclosures. These areas keep deer out, allowing native plant species to recover and spread their seeds. Excessive deer, who have no other predators since humans drove away the wolves, destroy forests. The ecosystem itself is in danger of collapse without human stewardship. We are both the cause and the solution to the problem.
Land management, and the wise protection of our natural resources and ecosystem are the hallmarks of Judaism when it comes to the environment.
Enjoy the Earth, as you work it and guard it for you, for your children's children, and for God.