Q&A : Living Green – January 2010 – “Jewish Life” magazine
Living green is a hot topic on the world arena – what is the Jewish take on it?
Hashem created the world and he asks us to look after it. Hashem owns the world and we have to respect His ownership of it. Everything we have He has given us as a gift. The physical body. The physical environment. It is our duty to care for these, and it is an obligation to show kindness and respect to our fellow human beings too – because what we do affects not only us, but all people and future generations as well.
How can we reconcile this with our need, as human beings, to take ownership of our lives and our environs so that we can invest in it?
The Talmud explains that before one says a blessing the food belongs to Hashem. By saying the blessing, we acquire the right to use what belongs to Hashem, and to consume the food. When we recognise and respect that Hashem is the creator and ultimate owner of everything, then He gives us the right to acquire it and use it for our enjoyment of His world, in an ethical and controlled manner.
The environmental question is quite a modern one – are we given any guidelines on how to recognise and respect our physical world from the Torah?
There is a basic principle in Judaism that says that we are not allowed to waste anything – this is called bal tashchit, the prohibition to destroy. Wastage is using something in this world that doesn’t have any productive purpose. This law teaches us that we must live in a way that we use everything that we need.
What is a practical way to apply this?
If there are clothes that you don’t wear, give them away to charity so that others who need them can benefit. Give left over food to hungry people out there to benefit from. This also means being careful. Don’t waste electricity, especially when there is an electricity shortage in the country. Don’t waste water, one of our most precious commodities. We also need to raise our children with an awareness to respect their environment as well as their immediate physical environment.
What small start can each child make?
Live neatly. If toys are not being used, give them away to someone who will use them. If toys come with various parts that make up the whole, like a puzzle, each part needs to be looked after so the toy doesn’t become useless and wasted if one piece is lost.
Where do we see this in the Torah?
There is an amazing Gemora which tells us that when Jacob struggled with the angel, he was on his own because he went back to collect a few small items which he had left on the other side of the river. The Gemora says that a real tzaddik, like Jacob, is careful with every item of material possession they have, because it was earned through hard, honest work. On the one hand Judaism rejects materialism as a value system, but on the other hand it teaches that physical things which have material value need to be treated with respect because they are given to us by Hashem to be used for good things. So too with the physical world.
How else are environmental issues relevant to us?
Judaism teaches that in the same way we need to take pains to ensure we look after our physical environment, we need to be diligent in creating a clean moral environment too. We don’t want a hole in the ozone layer affecting the air we breathe – but neither do we want a hole in the ozone of our spiritual world depleting our spiritual air either. We have to be so careful to keep our immediate physical surroundings in alignment with our Torah values.
So for example…
We have to be careful of outside influences that we bring in to our lives that may pollute the spiritual atmosphere, which are contrary to our Jewish values – of respecting others, respecting relationships, the sanctity of marriage, and the world we live in – living for a higher purpose.
Of course, we live in a big open world and we cannot shut out the environment in which we live, but we have to go out of our way to bring sanctity and holiness, purpose and meaning, and the elevated values of Judaism into our environment. So that we live elevated lives, both spiritually and physically.
What is the best way to achieve this?
By learning Torah we learn to see the world through the eyes of Hashem. By living Torah we create the practical, positive energy to uplift our moral environment.