Top Ten Jewish Texts on the Environment

Last week an educator asked me to collect my ten favorite texts about the enviroment. I could have written way more than ten, but kept to that number. Below are the ones I have come up with. Feel free to comment on them and perhaps add your own favorite.

Genesis 2:15

And the Lord took Adam and placed him the Garden of Eden to work it and guard it.

Vayikra 25:23-24

The land must not be sold forever: for the land is Mine: for you are strangers and residents with Me. Throughout the land you possess, you must provide redemption of the land.

Midrash Koheleth Rabah 7:13

Upon creating the first human beings, God guided them around the Garden of Eden, saying “look at my creations! See how beautiful and perfect they are! I created everything for you. Make sure you don’t ruin or destroy MY world. If you do, there will be no one to fix it.

B’reishit Rabbah 10:7

The Rabbis said: Even though you may think superfluous in the world things such as fleas, gnats and flies, even they are included in the creation of the world. The Holy One has a purpose for everything including snakes, scorpion, gnats and frogs.

n You can also tie in texts from Job into this text. The entire book has a similar theme

Midrash Sifre 20:19

If not for the trees, human life could not exist.

BT Taanit 23a

Once Honi was walking along the road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked, ‘How long before it will bear fruit? The man answered, seventy years.’ Honi asked, ‘Are you sure you will be here in seventy years to eat from the fruit? The man replied, ‘I found the world filled with carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I will plant for my children.’

BT Shabbat 77b

In all that God created in this world, the Holy one did not create a single thing without purpose; thus the snail is a remedy for a scab, the fly is an antidote for a hornet’s sting, the mosquito (crushed up) for a snake bite, the snake can cure certain types of boils, and the spider as a remedy for a scorpion (skin).

Maimonides Mishneh Torah Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8-10

It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a besieged city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they wither. Whoever cuts down a fruit-bearing tree is flogged. This penalty is imposed not only for cutting it down during a siege; whenever a fruit-yielding tree is cut down with destructive intent, flogging is incurred. It may be cut down, however, if it causes damage to other trees or to a field belonging to another man or if its value for other purposes is greater. The Law forbids only wanton destruction… Not only one who cuts down trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food with destructive intent transgresses the command “you must not destroy.” Such a person is not flogged, but is administered a disciplinary beating imposed by the Rabbis.

Martin Buber, I and Though pp57-58

“I can contemplate a tree. I can accept it as a picture… I can feel it as a movement… I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance … I can overcome its unique and form so rigorously that I can recognize it only as an expression of law. . . I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and externalize it. Throughout all of this the tree, the tree remains my object and has its time span, its kind and condition. But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree, I am drawn into the relation and the tree ceases to be an IT”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man in Search of God, 1976

Human beings have indeed become primarily tool-making animals, and the world is now a gigantic tool box for the satisfaction of their needs….It is when nature is sensed as mystery and grandeur that it calls upon us to look beyond it.

Note: I often use psalms that have natural images for teaching as well. Look at the Psalms in Hallel as well as the ones after Ashrei, especially Psalm 148.

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