Protecting our planet is not just a scientific or political issue. It is a religious, spiritual imperative. We find this truth embodied in three core Jewish values.
1. The first is captured in the Hebrew phrase l’dor v’dor: the imperative that we pass on our earth “from generation to generation.”
This imperative goes back all the way to Adam and Eve.
The Bible tells us that God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden to “till and tend.” The Hebrew words have specific connotations. The Hebrew word for “tend” is used Jewish law to imply a legal sense of guardianship.
In effect, God has made us trustees of the earth. Part of our obligation is to keep it in good condition for the benefit of future generations.
2. The second critical value is bal tashchit. In Hebrew, that means “do not destroy.”
It is a religious value that also goes back to the Bible.
In the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites were specifically commanded not to destroy the fruit-bearing trees of an opposing city when in battle. The sages saw this law as an example of a broader imperative. They extended it to peacetime as well as war, other objects as well as trees.
The broader imperative is this: We don’t have a right to destroy anything of potential human benefit, even if it is our own property.
How might this work in our lives? Let’s say we are moving, and we have a usable table and chairs that we don’t really need any more. We might think we can dispose of it as we would wish.
Jewish law, however, tells us that we may not. We are obliged to seek its further usage—by giving it away or selling it—rather than destroying it. To destroy it would violate our role as stewards of what ultimately belongs not to us, but to God.
3. The final critical value is shomrei adamah, which means “guardians of the earth.”
As human beings, we are endowed with great power. Unlike other animals, we can manipulate nature. This has enormous benefits: technology, buildings, civilization. But it also has dangers: war, pollution, disease.
With our enormous power comes significant responsibility. Foremost among them is sustaining our world. That means we have the responsibility to do what we can to conserve energy. That means we have the responsibility to speak out for laws that curb waste and pollution.
In so many ways, our children are leading us in this area. I was amazed and inspired by a student at my synagogue. Compelling by this issue, she implemented a recycling program in her high-rise building.
It was an enormous undertaking. She had to get other residents on board, work with the management company, order recycling bins, coordinate the pick-up, and make sure it became self-sustaining. She did it.
Ultimately, a Jewish view of environmental responsibility demands action and humility. We know that the world is not wholly ours to bend to our will. Rather, it is something given to us in trust for future generations.
For more on this topic, including ways to take action, visit the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s environmental justice page.