Monday, October 15, 2007

Bal Taschit and Tikkun Olam: Jewish Environmental Ethics

Today is blog action day.
And although its late already, we thought we'd get in on the action.

So first, a story:

When G-d was creating space and time, G-d formed many universes, but each one was not quite what G-d had intended and so G-d recycled the materials for another go at it. Finally, G-d made a universe that was just what G-d had wanted, and in that universe, our universe, in the outer third of the spiral arm of a rather ordinary galaxy, G-d put a lovely blue planet. And then G-d formed Adam (the human being) from the Adama (the red earth) and breathed into Adam the breath of life. And G-d placed the human being on this garden planet, lush and full of all good things to work with it and to protect it (lit: l'avda u'lshamra). And G-d said to the humans: "Remember, I made you human from the humus (soil) and you belong to this land. The land is your mother. Take care then to protect and care for her, and do not destroy her, for if you do destroy then who will make her whole for you again?" (A Midrash on Genesis 2: Gan Ayden--translated and retold by Elisheva).

From this we learn that we are placed on this earth as part of creation. We did not create the earth and we cannot remake her should we destroy her. As humans beings, we are unique in creation in that we have "eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" and we therefore can choose between good and evil. We cannot claim the role of innocent bystanders to whatever happens on our lovely blue planet because we literally know better.

In Judaism, we have numerous laws and ethical requirements toward animals and nature. Here at Ragamuffin Studies, we have decided to focus on two of them. They are Bal Taschit--do not destroy--and Tikkun Olam--repair of the world.

Bal Taschit and Tikkun Olam by N

Bal Taschit is a commandment from Torah:

"When in your war against a city you have to beseige it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy (bal taschit) the trees, laying the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field like a human that can withdraw before you into the beseiged city?" (Devarim, Parashat Shoftim--Deuteronomy 20:19)

This pasuk is about how to treat trees during a war, but in the Talmud our rabbis expanded the meaning of Bal Taschit to mean that you may not destroy anything that G-d has made just because you want to destroy it. You can kill animals to eat them, but you must not waste them just to get the best parts or because you want to show what a great hunter you are. You can cut down trees for the wood to make your house, but you must not waste anything. Even throwing paper away and not recycling it would be to break the commandment not to destroy. I think what our rabbis meant was that the earth is not ours to do whatever we want to it. It belongs to the One who gave life to everything that lives here. We are part of the earth and not above it. So we have to find ways to "walk more lightly" on the earth as Tom Brown says.

Tikkun Olam means to repair the world. Mom will tell you the story of these words. I will tell you what I think it means. As I said above, G-d made the earth and it belongs to G-d not to human beings. But G-d did put us here to do more than just stop destroying things. We are also creative, like G-d is, since the story of creation says that we are "b'tselem Adonai". That means that we are in the image of G-d. And G-d is creative. So it is our job to fix up the world and make it better. We are creative when we find new ways to live on the earth, like inventing PV (photovoltaics) so that we can catch the sun's energy directly to make our electricity or use the sun to heat our water for showers and baths.

At our house, we do Bal Taschit by turning off lights we are not using, recycling more than we throw away, using a set-back thermostat for our heater, heating most of the house with a pellet stove, and by being very careful with water. Mom and Bruce are always saying things like "Turn off the water while you brush your teeth. We live in a desert, you know!" We also try to consolidate our errands when we go into to town so that we do not have to drive in as often. And whenever we can, we take the Focus instead of Henry the Big Red Truck.

We are also doing Tikkun Olam. For one thing, we take care of our trees on our acre by taking care of deadfall and thinning them so that they get the most sunlight and put more oxygen into the air. We also take a bag with us when we walk so that we can pick up litter. You'd be surprised at how many people litter in the mountains. We have even found old coke bottles that have filled with dirt! We went to the Solar Fiesta right after Rosh Hashanah because we are getting more creative. Mom and Bruce and I are going to install a PV system so that we can use the sun for some of our electricity and put some back in the grid. Mom is talking about rainwater harvesting for some of our fresh water and compost toilets to save water, too. So we are doing some things right now to help the environment and we are working on doing more. And it is kind of neat that some of the Tikkun Olam that we are doing will also help us with Bal Taschit. For example, to use PV for electricity, Bruce says that you have to get very good at not wasting any of it either.

Back to you, Mom!

It looks like N. has explained things very thouroughly. As he promised, I will tell the story of the words Tikkun Olam.

In the Jewish mystical tradition it is written that G-d first created light and then created vessels to contain that light. But when G-d poured the light into the vessels, they were too weak to contain it. The vessels shattered and the shards make up the material world that we commonly experience. But everywhere in the material world are hidden sparks of light. They are within you and me, plants and animals, rocks and earth. It is our job to gather these sparks and raise them up whenever we find them, bringing the material world closer and closer to the world of Holiness and Oneness. This job of gathering sparks is called Tikkun Olam--the repair of the world.

There are many meanings to this story, as is true of all good stories. But I think the one important for today is that everything in the world contains sparks of holiness. We just don't see it because we notice only the broken shards. When we look beyond only the material, we uncover the beauty and the spirit in everything. And we want to preserve and protect, "tend and till," and fulfill our role as creative stewards of Creation.

Jews believe that Creation itself is the sign of a covenant between G-d and all of the universe. We are not responsible only for ourselves alone, but for the care and protection of all of creation. When we learned of the knowledge of good and evil, and of life and death, we were pushed out of the womb of creation and born into a role of responsibility as stewards of creation. We have a duty to maintain the covenant of creation itself.

And if we do destroy our birthright wantonly, then who will make whole again?

1 comment:

Sarah said...

I just spent this past Sunday teaching a Sunday School lesson on the Hebrew Bible's environmental ethics. (I was supposed to be teaching on medical ethics, but I expanded it.)

I have always been astounded at how desperately blind most (Christian) readers are to the palpable concern for the *land*, for the earth, for the good of *all* creation in these texts.

And I hadn't heard some of the Talmudic commentaries on these scriptures. Thanks for sharing them!