Give the Earth a Shabbat

As a rabbi, I have a little confession to make. This is difficult for me to admit, so I hope that you’ll bear with me. Perhaps the most moving spiritual experience I ever had did not take place in a synagogue. And it didn’t take place in Israel either.

Though I have had many moving experiences in synagogues and in Israel, arguably, my most spiritual experience came someplace very far away from both. It happened at the Grand Canyon.

Over 20 years ago, Jodi and I staffed USY on wheels. Jodi and I (along with 44 teenagers) were running late in our attempt to get to the Grand Canyon before sunset. We got to the eastern rim as the sun was touching the horizon.

We all got off the bus and we hurriedly recited the evening prayers as the sun dipped below the far rim of the canyon and we were left with the afterglow – the strips of color that remain in the sky after the sun has set. At that moment, I understood the words of the evening service in a way that I had never understood them before:

As we praised God as the “Ma-ariv Aravim – the One who makes evening,” I could almost see God tugging on the bottom of the sun in order to bring it down below the horizon. Even though Jodi and I had to immediately deal with the reality of chaperoning 44 teenagers, feeding them and finding our hotel, from that point on I understood that one of my connections to God was – and is – through nature.

Judaism has always appreciated the environment and the Torah gives us specific laws in order to help us preserve the natural processes of the land.

In this week’s Torah portion, God says to the Israelites: “When you come into the land that I give you, THE LAND (emphasis added) shall keep a Sabbath for Adonai (Lev. 25:2).” Now, we know about people observing the seventh day as Shabbat, but how does the land observe a Sabbath? We find out in the ensuing verses that after working the land for six years, we must give the land a rest for one year by allowing it to lie fallow.

In other words, we cannot simply rely upon God to maintain the productivity of the earth. If we want a healthy environment, we must play a role in its care. We cannot abuse the planet and then expect that it will continue to provide us with oxygen, food, fuel, shelter and all the other wonderful things that we cull from it.

This principle is taken to the next level in Deuteronomy 20:19, where we learn that it is forbidden to chop down our enemy’s fruit trees even in time of war. The rabbis inferred that if you cannot destroy a tree during the most destructive of times, then we must be especially careful to take care of the environment during times of peace. Along these lines, Prof. Jonathan Golden will be discussing how Israel is shares the natural resource of water with adversarial neighbors (see details below).

We may no longer farm the land as our ancestors did. We may not find ourselves in a position to cut down the fruit trees of our enemies in a war. However, there are many things that we CAN do today in order to help preserve the wonderful gift God has given us.

• We can recycle.
• We can support candidates – on the local, state and national levels – whose views and proposals are in accordance with Jewish ecological values.
• We can plant flowers, plants and trees in our own yards.
• We can support the preservation of parks in our neighborhoods (as our Men’s Club did last weekend!!)
• We can purchase products from companies with a history of respecting the environment.

Our GreenFaith committee – under the leadership of Marjorie Fox and Mimi Zukoff – is leading the way for our community to fulfill our obligations to treat the environment in the manner that our tradition expects. However, they cannot do it alone. We must all do our part.



About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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