Parshat Chayei Sarah: Praying in the Fields

By Drew Kaplan

 

The Parsha of Chayei Sarah is dedicated in memory of Sophie Katz, a true woman of valour, who inspired us all to seek learning and live life fully.

The Sefer of Bereishis is dedicated in memory of Jacob Cohen by Marilyn and Herbert Smilowitz and family.

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Since Yitzhak went to the field to pray in this week’s Torah portion, the world has not been the same. The Talmud offers two sources for our requirement to pray three daily prayers; one is the prayers themselves of the three forefathers of the Jewish people. Avraham is credited with instituting shaharit, the morning prayer; Yitzhak grants us minhah, the afternoon prayer; and Ya’akov gives us ma’ariv, the evening prayer.

The Talmud cites a verse from the Book of Genesis to establish each prayer. For Yitzhak, on whom we will concentrate, it is written (Brachot 26b):

Yitzhak instituted the afternoon prayer service, as it is said, “And Yitzhak went out to su’ah in the field before evening” (Gen. 24:63); and there is no sihah except prayer, as it is said, “A prayer of the afflicted man when he swoons, and pours forth his supplications (siho) before HaShem” (Ps. 102:1).[1]

The Sages saw these verses as being connected in the linguistic similarity of the word siah, and they saw in them that what Yitzhak was doing was praying.  However, this claim is made on the seemingly ambiguous meaning of su’ah found in the verse related to Yitzhak. From where does this connection come?

One Talmudic commentary, Tosafot, suggests that the reason why this word is used in both places is that while one might have thought that Yitzhak simply went out to speak with someone in the field, he actually went out to pray.[2]

However, the term evokes a striking similarity to a word of the same root found earlier in Genesis: “Now all the trees (siah) of the field were not yet on the earth and all the herb of the field had not yet sprouted, for HaShem G-d had not yet sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.” (Gen. 2:5)

The usage in our verse relating to Yitzhak may now take on an additional dimension – it seems as there may have been an agricultural element to Yitzhak’s outing in the field.  Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam) suggests that what Yitzhak was actually doing in the field was planting trees as well as checking up on his agricultural efforts. (Gen. 24:63, “Ve-yetze Yitzhak la-su’ah basadeh”).[3]

What was it that the Talmudic sages saw in our verse to understand that Yitzhak was praying? Is it possible that the Torah would make sure to tell us that Yitzhak was engaged in mundane agricultural activities? The answer leads one to see that his action was one from which later generations can learn much.

The connection between these two verses in their use of this same word is deeply meaningful when one considers that on the second verse — “Now all the trees (siach) of the field were not yet on the earth and all the herb of the field had not yet sprouted, for HaShem G-d had not yet sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.” (Gen. 2:5) Rabbi Solomon Yitzhaki (Rashi), the eleventh century medieval scholar, comments:

For what is the reason that G-d had not yet sent rain, because there was no man to work the land and there was no one to acknowledge the goodness of the rain, and when man came and knew that they (the rain) are a need for the world, he prayed for them and they came down, and the trees and grasses sprouted.” (Gen. 2:5, “ki lo himtir”).

The usage of the term in this verse may be about agriculture, but the verse is telling us that human beings are needed in order to pray!

But that is not all. The verse preceding the above one states: “These are the products of the heaven and the earth when they were created on the day that HaShem G-d made earth and heaven.” (Gen. 2:4) There is a direct connection between G-d’s creating of the si’ah and to the tending of the si’ahdone by man. In other words, G-d created it in order for man to tend to it. Being involved with the earth is an act whereby one connects with G-d’s handiwork.

In line with this, Rabbi Yohanan, the late third century Talmudic sage, said that one may not pray in a house without windows (Brahot 34b).  Rashi commented that Rabbi Yohanan said this because looking outside causes one to focus towards heaven and one’s heart will be humbled (Brahot 34b, s.v.halonot).  More than just simply focusing towards heaven, however, one will be able to see the natural landscape – G-d’s handiwork.  By praying in a house without windows, one would be surrounded by man’s handiwork, which does not strike one with as much awe and appreciation for G-d.

Rebbe Nahman of Breslov instructed his followers to engage in hitbodedut, or to speak with G-d in the field for an hour every day. In explaining Rebbe Nahman’s teachings, Rabbi Natan Greenberg stated that real prayer involves conversation with the natural world around a person. Indeed, the strength of prayer comes from the Divine, spiritual energy flowing from nature.

A person needs all the spiritual energy of the earth to give strength to one’s prayer. Yitzhak first manifests this type of prayer through his connection to nature. He comes to it because he finds it difficult to relate to the world around him. He wants to be in a simple world, G-d’s world, so he walks and prays in the field.[4]

For Yitzhak, praying to G-d in nature was a central part of his Divine service, and it can be for us as well. As Rabbi Mordechai Friedfertig wrote:

“It is interesting that in this week’s parashah, when it is reported that Yitzhak davens (prays) Minhah, it says, ‘Vayetze Yitzhak lasu’ah bashadeh’ – Yitzhak went out to supplicate in the field. He left behind all of his worries, and put everything aside so that he could focus on Hashem. And we must do the same – not only every day, to daven Minchah – but throughout our busy, busy lives. We must find the time to leave our worldly cares behind, and venture out into the fields where we will encounter Hashem.”[5]

The natural world is an excellent setting for praying to G-d. While the Sages call for daily prayer within the walls of the synagogue, Rebbe Nahman calls for daily conversations with G-d in nature, while also leaving open the possibility of occasional prayers to G-d beyond the walls of the prayer hall. By both our going out and working with G-d’s creation and by praying within this creation – we seize the opportunity to grow closer to G-d.

Our ability to connect to our Creator in the world He created is an indicator of our ability to live in balance with that natural world. A primarily urban, post-industrial Jewish people that is alienated from G-d’s Oneness as manifested in the natural world will certainly misuse that which G-d has given us.

The litany of ecological problems we face — from air and water pollution to species extinction and urban sprawl — testify to the Jewish people’s disconnect from the natural environment which G-d gave them. Re-connecting to the inspired outdoor prayers of our forefathers can help us regain a sense of the grandeur of G-d’s world and of our responsibility to live in balance with it.

 

Suggested Action Items:

  1. Learn Rebbe Nahman’s teachings on hitbodedut and practice them, reconnecting with yourself and G-d’s world as you do! (For a wonderful English book that gives Rebbe Nahman’s teachings on hitbodedut in condensed form, see Where Earth and Heaven Kiss by Ozer Bergman.)
  2. Daven (pray) outside, or to go daven with a minyan outside in order to daven with G-d’s handiwork surrounding oneself.
  3. Plant a garden (or a few herbs in pots) and as you care for it, pray that your produce will grow!

 

Drew Kaplan is currently a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York City.  Originally from GahannaOH, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Jewish Studies.

Notes:

[1] In another Talmudic statement, these two verses are switched around to derive an imperative for prayer (Avodah Zarah 7b):

Rabbi Eliezer says, “One should request one’s needs and, after that, one should pray, as it is said, ‘A prayer of the afflicted man when he swoons, and ours forth his supplications (siho) before HaShem’ (Ps. 102:1) – there is no sihah except for prayer, as it is said, ‘And Yitzhak went out to siah in the field’ (Gen. 24:63).”

[2] See Avodah Zarah. 7b, Tosafot, s.v. ve-ayn sihah.

[3] By contrast, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that what Yitzhak did in this verse was merely to walk between the shrubs (Gen. 24.63, s.v. la-su’ah) – simply enjoying them.

[4] Shiur on Likutei Moharan, part 2, teaching 11. Rabbi Greenberg is the Rosh Yeshiva of the Bat Ayin Yeshiva. This shiur is available in audio form at bat-ayin.org.

[5] Rabbi of Congreg

ation B’nai Shalom in Williamsville, New York.

Parshat Vayera: The Sin of Sodom and Its Impact on Creation

By Rabbi Yuval Cherlow

 

(translated from the original Hebrew by Ariel Shalem)

 The Parsha of Vayera is dedicated by Shoshana Shinnar of the Bikkur Cholim of Westchester, to her dedicated volunteers throughout the years. May G-d bless you for your dedication.

The Sefer of Bereishis is dedicated in memory of Jacob Cohen by Marilyn and Herbert Smilowitz and family.

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Two cosmic catastrophes unfold in the book of Genesis. The first, the flood, in which G-d brings waters down from the Heavens to destroy almost all life. The second, the utter devastation of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which an areapreviously known as a fertile and lush “garden of Hashem” (Gen. 13:10) becomes a desolate land “that cannot be sown, nor sprout, and no grass shall rise up upon it, like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah… which Hashem overturned in His anger, and His wrath” (Deut. 29:22).

One of the connections we see between these two events is the word the Torah employs in both cases, lihachsheet – to destroy. When G-d relates to Noah that He will bring the flood He says, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with robbery through them; and, behold, I am about to destroy (mashkheetam) them from the earth” (Gen. 6:13).

In the case of Sodom we see the same word applied: “when God destroyed (beshakhet) the cities of the plain…” (Gen. 19:29). The Torah did not elaborate on the sin of Sodom, but the underpinnings are expressed later in the prophecy of Ezekiel: “Behold this was the sin of Sodom…She and her daughters had pride, excess bread, and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy” (16:49). The prophet’s description combined with what the Torah reveals to us gives us the following picture: the people of Sodom insisted on preserving their high quality of living to such an extent they established a principle not to let the poor and homeless reside in their city.

Consequently, when a destitute person would come seeking help, they would revoke his right to any welfare – public or private! By doing this they figured they would preserve an elite upper class community who would monopolize the profits that the bountiful land offers without having to distribute any revenues to a “lower class” of people.

An opinion in the Mishna in Avot 5:10 further strengthens this picture of moral depravity when it defines the Sodomite as one who says, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” The Mishna decries a man who wishes to remove himself from the social responsibility of welfare by closing himself and his wealth from others, even if he makes the claim that he is not taking away from anyone else.

Interestingly, the Sages of the Talmud did not merely draw attention to the relationship between the economic injustices of the generation of the flood and the social depravity of Sodom. The Torah narrative concerning Sodom reveals something deeper. “They called out to Lot, ‘Where are the men that came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them!’” (Gen. 19:5) Indeed, the men demanded to relate to Lot’s male guests sexually.

According to the Midrash in Genesis Rabba 28:8, the destruction caused by the flood also shared a similar cause:

Rabbi Azariyah said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua son of Simon, every creature had been corrupted in the generation of the flood. The dog would mate with the wolf, the hen with the peacock. For it is written, ‘All flesh was corrupted.’ ‘All mankind was corrupted’ is not written, rather ‘All flesh was corrupted.’ (Thereby coming to include all flesh, both human and animal.) Rabbi Luliyani son of Tavrin said in the name of Rabbi Isaac, “Even the land became corrupt as they would sow wheat and the land would sprout degenerate wheat.”

Until now, we have dealt with sins between people and God (sexual immorality) and between people and society (robbery, excluding the poor), yet our Torah portion even makes references to sins between man and his environment. The Torah again uses the verb hashkhata in relation to the wanton destruction of fruit trees: “When you besiege a city to seize it, do not destroy (tashkhit) its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down; is the tree of the field a man that it should enter the siege before you?” (Deut. 20:19)

A final example: the same Hebrew verb hishkhit is used in regards to the widely accepted Law delineated in the Book of Mitzvoth not to destroy any part of our world. Under the above-stated commandment not to destroy fruit trees in a siege, comes a further negative commandment where we are forbidden to waste. For example, we must not tear or burn clothing or break or discard dishes for no reason. About all of these issues or any other issues of wanton destruction, the Sages of blessed memory said in the Talmud, “And he has transgressed the sin of being a wasteful man” (The Book of Mitzvoth, 529).

What could be the connection between the corruption of the generation of the flood, the people of Sodom and environmental sins? There are three basic answers. The first and most simple reason is that humanity itself is part and parcel of its environment and is not separate from it. Having been created in the image of G-d we may think that we are detached from creation.

Further, our Torah-given obligation to preserve the world that G-d gave us may suggest to us that we are above it. Nonetheless, we are bound to and part of creation.  The Torah stresses this by including the creation of human beings in the six days of creation and creating us with the means to sustain ourselves like all other creatures, regardless of our unique stature of being created in the image of G-d. Consequently, when one sins against a fellow creature — human or animal — they are sinning against their environment.

The second connection between the flood, the people of Sodom and the destruction of our environment is that in those generations the people corrupted their sexual power.  Sexual power can build worlds or destroy them. Statements by the Sages that the flood was a result of the inbreeding of species may be applied to our present era as a warning of possible destruction caused by various genetic experimentation, which although at times may be morally justified and halakhically permissible, in other situations can be destructive and wrong, and we must be careful in what we allow and what we do not.

The most central point in the connection between moral behavior and environmental behavior comes from the understanding that both behaviors go hand in hand. One without the other corrupts the Divine vision for human action. That is, a society may be passionate about preserving its natural environment while maintaining a complete disregard for the welfare of its citizens. Sodom is a perfect example of this, where they cared so much for their “garden of Hashem” that they refused to aid anyone in need.

The people of Sodom’s perverted ways, in effect, were extremely unsustainable – causing God to turn one of the most fertile and lush ecosystems on Earth into what today is infamous for its barrenness and desolation. From the mistakes of the people of Sodom we can learn the essential character traits that allow one to live in balance with the Creator and creation.

The moral human being is devoted to the holiness and purity of life, refrains from harming others, lives a sexually responsible lifestyle, and sacrifices their personal pleasure for an ethical and upright path. When we are capable of fulfilling this ideal we will naturally be triumphant in attaining the great spiritual task of infusing our religious/moral lifestyle with one that is also environmentally sustainable.

May we all be blessed to undertake the task.

Suggested Action Items:

  1. Look for an opportunity to be generous to another human being this week.  For example: give money to the poor, schedule a time to help out at a local shelter, or volunteer your time to help support community needs.
  2. Learn about how our environmental choices can disproportionately impact the poor.
  3. Focus your attention on living “in balance” with the Creator and creation.  One way to do this is by focusing on buying and preparing only as much food as you will eat.  Clean out your refrigerator and note which food items have gone to waste, so that you will buy less next time.

 

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Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Petach Tikva, is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion and a retired major in the IDF. After obtaining his Rabbinic Semicha, Rabbi Cherlow served as the Rav of Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, and as a Rav at the Hesder Yeshiva in Chispin.

Rabbi Cherlow was amongst the founders of the Tzohar Foundation, a central Modern Orthodox foundation which works to build bridges between the religious and secular worlds. Rav Cherlow is a member of Governmental Ethical Committees, and of the Presidential Press Council of Israel.

Lech Lecha: Joining Together for Justice in the Land

by Tuvia Aronson

 The Parsha of Lech Lecha is dedicated by Evonne and Jerry Marzouk in honor of the 35th wedding anniversary of Alfred and Vivianne Marzouk.

The Sefer of Bereishit is dedicated in memory of Jacob Cohen by Marilyn and Herbert Smilowitz and family.

 

 In this week’s Torah portion, Avram and Lot ’s inability to coexist on one piece of land leaps out at us. “And the land was unable to bear them to live together, because their possessions were great and they could not sit together” (Bereishit 13:6). In our era, when environmental issues such as population, food and land distribution are major concerns, we can look to this text for guidance.

The great commentator Rashi (France 1040-1105)[2] interprets the verse to mean that the land was simply unable to provide sufficient pasture for all the cattle and sheep involved. It is as if there is missing information intended to be inserted in the verse: “And the [pasture of the] land could not bear them.”

An alternative approach is that of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany 1808-1888) and the “Netziv” (Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin -Russia 1817-1893).[3]

It was not because they had too many herds or because there was not sufficient pastureland for both of them. If it all had been combined into one herd, one household, the land would have been sufficient. If two people cannot agree, separate tents are needed- boxes, crates, everything separate for each of the two parties.

Had their personalities been compatible, there would have been no need for separate pastures. The only thing that counted in Lot’s enterprise was profits, while in Avraham’s household attention was given to interests of a higher level.[4]

According to this approach, Avram and Lot ’s attitudes were incompatible, therefore they could not co-operate. This is why the verse stresses “together” – yachdav.  Interestingly, Targum Onkelos translates yachdav using the wording “as one,” connoting the need for a deep interconnection that ultimately enables living in harmony with the Land.[5] The Avrahamic tradition demands that we make our personal and societal decisions based on both environmental considerations (the approach quoted by Rashi) and social considerations (the approach quoted by Rav Hirsch).

Lot followed Avram, but was not committed to the moral path.  There is a textual nuance that proves this point. When Avram receives the command to immigrate to Canaan , the verse notes (12:4), “Lot went [et] him.” Similarly, the Torah here (13:5) states that “Lot was going et [with] Avram.” Rabbi Meir Leibush[6] (Malbim 1809-1879) explains that to go‘et’ merely implies a shared travel itinerary, while to go ‘im‘ connotes a shared sense of purpose and mission.[7]

Viewing this story in its larger context can further illuminate this issue.  Avraham[8] bequeathed to the Jewish people the concepts of Tzedek u’mishpat. [9]  If the essence of societal flaws during the Mabul (flood) era is based upon moral corruption and selfish behavior, then the tikun (fixing) initiated by Avraham must, at its very core, focus on interpersonal relationships.

The sages explain the seemingly extra words in our verse “and the Canaanites dwelled in the land” as referring to an ethical debate about allowing flocks to eat from the fields of the locals.[10] Avraham’s commitment to justice was so strong that he could not stand living with Lot who could rationalize this form of theft,[11] even from the most immoral of pagans.

Avraham’s mission is to elevate the material world and create a dwelling space for the Divine. This can only be done when we act with deep care and concern for the other[12]. This is in fact a classic case of Hilkhot Yishuv HaAretz, the laws of settling the land of Israel[13]: one is not to tend flocks in a way that damages the property of others.[14]

Avraham is decisive and resolute. He cannot make a treaty with Lot- he cannot share the Land of Israel with someone who condones theft and does not focus on the importance of other people. Unbalanced greed would later be a cause of the destruction of the Second Temple[15] and the subsequent exile from the land.[16]

The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was to be a space devoted to the confluence of bein adam l’makom (human-to-God relationship) and Bein adam l’chaveiro (inter- personal relationship) values.[17]  Avraham earns the right to the land of Israel through his ethical treatment of others in light of his monotheistic beliefs.  He cannot jeopardize that bond by an alliance with Lot.[18]

In recent years we have seen an explosive trend in the growth of Jewish environmental groups and programs.  Many of these programs see the coupling together of human co-operation with the environment as essential to their tasks.  They teach that the way we treat each other is going to affect our ability to live in an ecologically sustainable way.

Jewish environmental education programs stress achdut (togetherness).[19]  Jewish community gardens are flourishing,[20] and consumer assisted farming[21] projects are enhancing Jewish life in ways that promote both communal unity and harmony with nature. Intentional Jewish ecological communities are gaining momentum. Concern for the environment crosses denominational and philosophical divides.[22]

Globally, environmental and human rights concerns have been increasingly linked in recent years.[23]  The international community is gaining awareness of the issues relating to how we treat each other and the world we live in.  In May of 1994, a United Nations group of experts on human rights gathered in Geneva and drafted the first-ever declaration of principles on human rights and the environment and proposed:  “Human rights, an ecologically sound environment, sustainable development and peace are interdependent and indivisible.”[24]

Despite this, the environmental situation, particularly in the land of Israel , desperately needs to progress faster. While efforts toward recycling and cleaning up the waters are making some progress,[25] we have a great deal of work ahead of us and we must unite in the effort. Jews worldwide need to be at the forefront of environmental and human rights concerns, if we are truly to be a “Light to the Nations.”[26]

In our generation, the Torah seems to be calling to the Jewish people: “Return to your roots and show the world a model Avraham would be proud of.”  The Haftarah for our portion from Isaiah reflects the themes of “yachdav” (togetherness) and “tzedek” (justice) that we have discussed. It talks of how we must not be hopeless in the face of impending degradation.

A more ideal way is expressed to give us hope. “Every Human will help their friend, to their brothers (and sisters) they will call out, ‘be strong’” (41:6). Working as one to take care of our precious resources is incredibly powerful. This is at the very core of our Jewish and environmental understanding.

We must move towards living more harmoniously with the Earth by living more in unity with each other. Ultimately this will help us grow even closer to HaShem.

This is the legacy of Avraham.

 

Suggested Action Items:

  1. Look for an opportunity to share your resources with others.  For example, take a book from your local library rather than buying a new one, create an opportunity to share tools with a neighbor, or organize a community swap for books, toys, or other products you can share.
  2. Learn about the environmental challenges faced in the Land of Israel .  Identify one place in where you’d like to focus your attention on the state of the land.  Then, follow the status of that place and do your part to help preserve it.
  3. Join together with other Jews to learn about the Torah wisdom on the environment.

 

Tuvia Aronson studied at Yeshivot Kerem BeYavne and Ma’aleh Adumim in Israel, as well as Yeshiva University, Glendon College and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. Before making Aliya in 2002, Tuvia co-founded the Jewish Nature Centre of Canada known as Torat HaTeva.

In Israel, Tuvia served as a Judaica specialist, evaluating ancient Hebrew and Aramaic texts for online auctions, and as a teacher of Jewish history and the Land of Israel through tiyulim at the Alexander Muss High School . 

 

 

Notes:

 

[1] Dedicated to P.M.K.H.A

[2] Bereishit 13:6 – quoting Bereishit Rabbah  41.  Ramba”n ( 1194-1270) and Rabbi Ovadia of S’forno ( 1470 – 1550) also explain the verse in this manner.

[3] Haamek Davar on 13:6

[4] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Commentary to Bereishit  13:6  Judaic Press: Edited by Efraim Oratz,  translated by Gertrude Hirschler.  This idea has a precedent in Pesikta Rabati 83- see footnote #17 in Rav Menachem M. Kasher’s Torah Shleimah.  See also Sifrei Ki Tezte 264 that sees conflict itself as the root cause of the separation. Also see Abravanel (1437-1508) who focuses on the Godly motives of Avram in contradistinction to Lot.

[5] Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12C) also translated yachdav as yachid– united, and not yachad– together.

[6] On Vayikra 19:13. Also see Vilna Gaon, Malbim, HaKtav VehaKabalah on Bilam going “imahem” or “itam.

[7] Rabbi Eldad Zamir (Alei Etzion Volume 10 / Tishrei 5761) examines Lot ’s behavior in light of the model of his father who according to Midrash followed Avraham into the furnace out of selfish reasons rather than ideology.

[8] By this time his name had been changed. See Bereishit  17:5.

[9] This is explicit in the text Bereishit 18:19. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains in a lecture how this pasuk is the foundation of a Jewish response to the problem of evil:  Judaism, Justice and Tragedy – Confronting the Problem of Evil – 6 November 2000, found at chiefrabbi.org. Also see Rabbi Menachem Leibtag on the contrast between Avraham and Sodom (where Lot chooses to reside) at Tanach.orgParshat Vayera.

[10] Canaanite worship also involved baby murder and public rapes in the name of their various gods. See Vayikra 18:3, Devarim 7:25-26.  Visitors to Tel Gezer in central (near Karmei Yosef) can see an example of  Molech (child sacrifice) and the public rapes on behalf of the fertility gods (which shed light on the story of  the revenge for the rape of Dina).

[11] The Jewish approach to ethics and economics is explored by Dr Meir Tamari in “With all your Possessions” (Free Press, 1987. He quotes Malbim on Shmot 20 who states that refraining from theft is an expression of faith in the Divine source of wealth.  Our understanding of Avraham’s piety is further strengthened by Bava Kama 23b, in which Abaye is sent by Rav Yosef to rebuke shepherds for letting their goats graze in his fields. Abaye responds that the shepherds will claim that Rav Yosef should have built a fence if he wanted to protect his fields. There are authorities who uphold Abaye’s argument as halacha (see Rach, Bava Kama ibid). Although Lot has a halakhically plausible argument, Avraham cannot tolerate even the dust of theft.

[12] Rav David Zeller z.l. illustrates this beautifully in “The Soul of the Story” (Jewish Lights, 2006). Please see the story of his meeting with Nakazono Sensei, a Shinto Priest.

[13] See:  Mishna Tamid 2:3;  Bava Kama, 79b and Rashi;  Rambam, “Laws of Things Banned from the Altar,” Mishneh Torah, 7:3;  Encyclopedia Talmudit 2:225-26. Note that the Tur uses the term yishuv ha-o’lam (settlement of the world) instead of yishuv ha-aretz (settling the Land of Israel ), extending the halakha of balancing financial concerns with environmental and social factors to all lands. Jonathan Helfand in Judaism and Environmental Ethics, (pgs. 38 – 52) quotes Rav Yaakov of Emden who applied the concept of yishuv ha-aretz.

[14] For modern relevance of this halakha, see Har Zvi of Rav Zvi Pesach Frank and Rav Kook as quoted in the Birur Halakhah Gemara.

[15] Talmud Yerushalmi, Yoma, 1:1

[16] Semag, Rabbi Moshe of Coucy (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Hilkhot Hashavat Aveidah) explains that the present exile continues so long only because of our unethical business practices (Quoted by Dr. Meir Tamari). Similarly in Bamidbar Rabba (22:7) we find: “The sons of Gad and Reuven were rich and had large flocks. They loved their money and lived outside the Holy Land and therefore they were exiled before all the other tribes…What was the cause of this? They separated themselves from their brothers because of their possessions.”  For a deeper analysis of this connection between Lot and the hurban see: Tish’ah b’Av and the Children of Lot By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom.

[17] For a  Hasidic (Breslov) approach to the Avot and the Temple as paradigms of global balance, please see Rav Avraham Greenbaum:  http://www.azamra.org/earth.shtml

[18] In fact, the very next text (13:14) proves this point- the Torah stresses that the Divine promise of the Land as a gift to Avraham and his children came only after Lot had left.

[19] Shomrai Adamah and The Teva Learning Center have been at the forefront of this movement. The Teva Earth Education model has been articulated by Adam Berman, Nili Simhai, and Noam Dolgin. Groups in include among others: Arava Institute on Kibutz Ketura, Derech HaTeva of SPNI,  Hava VeAdam near Modiin, Shomera in the Jerusalem forest, the Yeshiva Tichonit Sevivatit in Mitzpe Ramon, The Eco Beit Midrash at Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo, et al.

[20] ADAMAH, Alexandra Kuperman, Farmer D,  et al.

[21] Hazon, Hava VeAdam, Torat Hateva, et al.

[22] COEJL, Canfei Nesharim, et al.

[23] E.g.: The poorest human populations will be hardest hit by global climate crisis. Also, a very poignant description about one such scenario was reported in National Geographic’s February 2007 issue by Tom O’Neill. “Oil fouls everything in southern . It spills from the pipelines, poisoning soil and water. It stains the hands of politicians and generals, who siphon off its profits. It taints the ambitions of the young, who will try anything to scoop up a share of the liquid riches—fire a gun, sabotage a pipeline, kidnap a foreigner.”

[24] Draft Principles On Human Rights And The Environment, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/9, Annex I (1994). Part I, section 1 – i.e. the very first point in their declaration (after the preamble)

[25] Thanks to efforts by Adam Teva VaDin, Zalul, Megama Yeruka, Atid Yarok among many others.

Noach: A Paradigm for Environmental Consciousness

by Shimshon Stuart Siegel

The Sefer of Bereishis is dedicated in memory of Jacob Cohen by Marilyn and Herbert Smilowitz and family.

While still in the Garden of Eden, humans, animals and plants lived in harmony, according to G-d’s desire for the world. After the Fall, maintaining this harmony became a great toil: the earth outside the Garden was thorny and tough; man and beast became adversaries. After a few generations all life on the planet had “corrupted (hishchis) its way on the earth.”[1]

In our Torah portion (parsha), G-d decided to wash the slate clean and begin creation over from scratch: “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created… for I regret that I made them.”[2] But one man’s righteousness compelled G-d to spare a small sector of life: “But Noach [Noah] found favor with the Lord.”[3]

Although environmental issues are not directly expressed in the parsha, when we take a deeper look at Noach, seeing him through the eyes of the Midrashim and various rabbinic commentaries, we can discover a portrait of a man who spent his life innovating a lifestyle of environmental harmony and Divine awareness. Environmental awareness is an aspect of the mitzvah known as Bal Tashchit- Do Not Destroy.

Noach, the one man who had not corrupted (hishchis) the world, became the pioneer of Bal Tashchis in the world when he built the ark, the vessel that would preserve the planet’s animal life in the face of the total destruction of the environment. Noach and his family faced incredible hardship and challenge as they fought the tide of destruction. A fresh look at the life of Noach can provide us many lessons as we strive to bring our world back to a state of holy balance. What can we learn from Noach’s efforts?

The Patient Educator

Caring about the environment requires patience and forethought. The Midrash says that, 120 years before the Flood, Noach actually planted the trees from which he would take the wood for the ark (no old-growth logging here)![4] Aware of the massive resources that his project would demand, Noach tried to be as self-sustaining as possible.

Noach hoped that his example could help inspire others to live more conscious and righteous lives. According to one opinion, Noach spent 52 years building, deliberately working slowly so that the people would take note, repent of their destructive ways and prevent the coming catastrophe.[5]

Hands-on Dirty Work

Protecting Hashem’s world requires hard, sometimes unpleasant work. Noach didn’t just load up the ark and sail worry-free– he worked without rest during the entire year of the Flood. For example, according to the Midrash Tanhuma, “throughout those twelve months, Noach and his sons did not sleep, because they had to feed the animals, beasts and birds.”[6]

But feeding thousands of animals was the cushy job. As the Talmud explains, the ark had three levels, one for Noach and his family, one for the animals, and one for the waste– tons upon tons of animal droppings.[7] The rabbinic sources debate the layout of the ark and the design of Noach’s waste-management system, but one thing remains clear– Noach’s family spent a lot of their time shoveling manure.[8]

Whether they systematically removed it from the ark, stored it in a designated waste facility or found practical use for it, we see that Noach toiled to maintain the cleanliness of the ark. While such work is not always enjoyable, Noach’s lesson teaches that the benefits of a clean, healthy living space over a filthy, foul-smelling environment are certainly worth the effort.

We all Share the Same Lifeboat (or Ark)

Another lesson we can learn from Noach is that it helps to see the world as a closed, integrated system. Noach and his eight-person crew maintained a sort of proto-BioDome inside the ark, struggling to preserve a functional level of ecological balance in the most challenging of situations.[9] Within such a system, every action has a significant impact and ramification, and individual elements can be aligned so as to strengthen and assist one another.

For example, composting food waste reduces landfill volume and then creates rich soil for home-grown, organic vegetables. Using public transportation in congested areas reduces pollution while cutting down on frustrating traffic. Less traffic, cleaner air and time to relax on the bus or train all contribute to less personal stress. Riding a bicycle to work does all these as well as significantly improving health.

Partnership with the Land

Noach’s construction of a giant, floating ecosystem was proof enough of his excellence as an environmental innovator. After the Flood, he reinvented himself again as an agricultural pioneer. At his birth, Noach’s father predicted that Noach would relieve mankind from the curse on the land that came with Adam and Eve’s expulsion.[10] Genesis says that “Noach began to be a man of the soil” after he left the ark.[11]

The Midrash Aggadah explains that Noach revolutionized farming techniques to soften the backbreaking toil that had been the way of the land since the Fall. Noach may have used the massive stores of dung on the ark to compost and revitalize the land, which had lost its top 12 inches of topsoil in the Flood.[12] By thus easing the burdens of man and the soil, he truly earned his name, “rest.”[13] Overall, Noach’s relationship with the land was harmonious and productive, not adversarial or injurious to the planet or to his own well-being.

As beneficiaries of the earth’s produce and descendants of Noach, we should ensure that the world’s agricultural workers are supported by both modern technologies and modern social values. Like Noach, modern farmers can promote agricultural techniques that keep the land viable for future generations. We must not fill our breadbasket via the suffering of those less fortunate than ourselves, or at the expense of a healthy, fruitful future.

The fact that we can eat meat does not necessarily mean that we must, and certainly does not mean that we must eat it every day! Exploring the fruits and vegetables of the land, like Noach, can be exciting and creative while promoting our own health. When we do eat meat, it should be from farms that share our concerns for a healthy world and that respect God’s creatures, all of whom live under the sign of the rainbow.

Faith in Humanity

While Noach strove for a gentle environmental harmony, the people of the earth arrogantly saw themselves engaged in a battle with God and the forces of nature. When they saw him building the ark, the people told Noach, “if God brings the Flood up from the earth, we have iron plates with which we can cover the earth!”[14]

In spite of such skepticism, Noach stayed the course, and even maintained faith in humanity. We see from the Torah that he did not board the ark until after the Flood had already begun, hoping that people would change their ways and thus prevent the destruction.[15]

For Noach, the ark was an unfortunate but necessary solution to a global crisis. Even when all signs were grim, he maintained his faith, greeting every challenge with further innovation.
So too must we continue to strive for a better tomorrow, educate others about environmental issues, and believe that our actions, on every level, can make a difference. When we step outside after a rainstorm and see the rainbow in the sky, we remember God’s promise to Noach, and we know that we are not alone in our efforts.

Suggested Action Items:

  1. We’ve eaten plenty of meat over the last month. This week, consider changing one meal that would have consisted of meat to one that does not include meat. Try a new fruit or vegetable, or prepare it in a new way, to “explore the fruits of the land.”
  2. Noach’s hard work paid off for future generations (us). Identify an action that you could take in your life that would make a difference for your children or future generations (whether environmental, educational, or otherwise).
  3. If you are not ready to commit today to that change, identify a time in the future when you will commit to it, and mark that time on your personal calendar so you will remember it when it comes.

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Shimshon Stüart Siegel is studying for Rabbinic Ordination at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in the Judean Hills. He has studied film, elementary edication and Jewish texts, and holds a BA and MA. Over the past 10 years he has worked with young people across the U.S . and in Israel. He has also worked as an editor for Canfei Nesharim’s Eitz Chaim Hee series.

Notes:

[1] Genesis 6:12 (all Biblical translations are JPS)
[2] Genesis 6:7
[3] Genesis 6:8
[4] Genesis Rabbah 30:7
[5] Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 22
[6] Midrash Tanhuma 58:9. Emphasis by the author.
[7] Sanhedrin 108b
[8] This interpretation, like much of this drash, relies on a very literal reading of the Biblical text. Alternatively, the Ramban explains on Genesis 6:19 that, according to reason, we know that it would be impossible for any human being to construct a vessel large enough to contain two of all species of animals. He asserts that it is a hidden miracle that enabled this unrealistic feat to occur. Along the same lines, it would not be possible for Noach and his sons to keep up with all the feeding and waste management of the ark. If we can then expand on the Ramban, perhaps Noach and his sons did all they can and were assisted from Heaven to complete the rest.
[9] The fascinating question of food on the ark, especially food for carnivores, is beyond the scope of this drash. Some have theorized that he kept the carnivores satiated with cow’s milk. Another theory suggests that large carnivores may have hibernated for the year.
[10] Genesis 3:17-19, 5:29
[11] Many translations say “Noach, the man of the earth, debased himself.” While this is a possible reading, connected to ensuing events, the simple translation is as we have given it.
[12] Rashi on Genesis 6:13
[13] Midrash Aggadah, v. 29 (as cited by JewishEncyclopedia.com.)
[14] Sanhedrin 108b
[15] This unique interpretation of Genesis 7:7 (also, v.11-13) is in contradiction to the major Midrashic tradition, which states that Noach delayed boarding the ark because he doubted that God would make a Flood (as seen in Genesis Rabbah 32:6). It was told by Rav Zev Rosen in the name of the Gaon of Vilna, and by Reb Yitzhak, the Vorker Rebbe as well (see Maayanah Shel Torah).

The Stewardship Paradigm in the Torah Portion of Bereishit/Genesis

by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks

(Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth)

This parsha is dedicated by his family in memory of Rabbi Moshe Aharon Perlstein z”l, whose legacy of inspired Jewish practice continues to shine. 

The Sefer of Bereishis is dedicated in memory of Jacob Cohen by Marilyn and Herbert Smilowitz and family.

 

Few texts have had a deeper influence on Western civilization than the first chapter of Genesis, with its momentous vision of the universe coming into being as the work of God. Set against the grandeur of the narrative, what stands out is the smallness yet uniqueness of humans, vulnerable but also undeniably set apart from all other beings. The words of the Psalmist echo the wonder and humility that the primordial couple must have felt as they beheld the splendor of creation:

When I consider your heavens,
The work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars,
Which you have set in place.
What is humanity that you are mindful of it,
The children of mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them little lower than the angels
And crowned them with glory and honour.[1]

The honour and glory that crowns the human race is possession of the earth, which is granted as the culmination of God’s creative work: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.”[2] This notion is fortified in Psalm 115: “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth God has given to humanity.” While the creation narrative clearly establishes God as Master of the Universe, it is the human being who is appointed master of the earth.

Grappling with the challenging notion of humans as divinely-ordained owners and subduers of the earth, we come face to face with the fundamental questions of our place in the universe and our responsibility for it. A literal interpretation suggests a world in which people cut down forests, slaughter animals and dump waste into the seas at their leisure, much like we see in our world today. On the other hand, as Rav Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, writes, any intelligent person should know that Genesis 1:28 “does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to fulfill his personal whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart.”[3] Could God have really created such a complex and magnificent world solely for the caprice of humans?

Genesis chapter 1 is only one side of the complex biblical equation. It is balanced by the narrative of Genesis chapter 2, which features a second Creation narrative that focuses on humans and their place in the Garden of Eden. The first person is set in the Garden “to work it and take care of it.”[4] The two Hebrew verbs used here are significant. The first– le’ovdah—literally means “to serve it.” The human being is thus both master and servant of nature. The second—leshomrah--means “to guard it.” This is the verb used in later biblical legislation to describe the responsibilities of a guardian of property that belongs to someone else. This guardian must exercise vigilance while protecting, and is personally liable for losses that occur through negligence. This is perhaps the best short definition of humanity’s responsibility for nature as the Bible conceives it.

We do not own nature–“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”[5] We are its stewards on behalf of God, who created and owns everything. As guardians of the earth, we are duty-bound to respect its integrity. The mid-nineteenth century commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch put this rather well in an original interpretation of Genesis 1:26, “Let us make the human in our image after our own likeness.”[6] The passage has always been puzzling, since the hallmark of the Torah is the singularity of God. Who would God consult in the process of creating humans? The “us,” says Hirsch, refers to the rest of creation. Before creating the human, a being destined to develop the capacity to alter and possibly endanger the natural world, God sought the approval of nature itself. This interpretation implies that we would use nature only in such a way that is faithful to the purposes of its Creator and acknowledges nature’s consenting to humanity’s existence.

The mandate in Genesis 1 to exercise dominion is, therefore, not technical, but moral: humanity would control, within our means, the use of nature towards the service of God. Further, this mandate is limited by the requirement to serve and guard as seen in Genesis 2. The famous story of Genesis 2-3—the eating of the forbidden fruit and Adam and Eve’s subsequent exile from Eden—supports this point. Not everything is permitted. There are limits to how we interact with the earth. The Torah has commandments regarding how to sow crops, how to collect eggs and how to preserve trees in a time of war, just to name a few.[7]

When we do not treat creation according to God’s Will, disaster can follow. We see this today as more and more cities sit under a cloud of smog and as mercury advisories are issued over large sectors of our fishing waters.[8] Deforestation of the rainforests, largely a result of humanity’s growing demand for timber and beef, has brought on irrevocable destruction of plant and animal species.[9] We can no longer ignore the massive negative impact that our global industrial society is having on the ecosystems of the earth. Our unbounded use of fossil fuels to fuel our energy-intensive lifestyles is causing global climate change. An international consensus of scientists predicts more intense and destructive storms, floods, and droughts resulting from these human-induced changes in the atmosphere.[10] If we do not take action now, we risk the very survival of civilization as we know it.

The Midrash says that God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”[11] Creation has its own dignity as God’s masterpiece, and though we have the mandate to use it, we have none to destroy or despoil it. Rabbi Hirsch says that Shabbat was given to humanity “in order that he should not grow overweening in his dominion” of God’s creation. On the Day of Rest, “he must, as it were, return the borrowed world to its Divine Owner in order to realize that it is but lent to him.”[12]Ingrained in the process of creation and central to the life of every Jew is a weekly reminder that our dominion of earth must be l’shem Shamayim- in the name of Heaven.

The choice is ours. If we continue to live as though God had only commanded us to subdue the earth, we must be prepared for our children to inherit a seriously degraded planet, with the future of human civilization put into question. If we see our role as masters of the earth as a unique opportunity to truly serve and care for the planet, its creatures and its resources, then we can reclaim our status as stewards of the world, and raise our new generations in an environment much closer to that of Eden.

 

Suggested Action Items:

  1. To get started with your commitment to learn and act on our Torah responsibility about the environment, calculate your ecological footprint, that is, how many acres of bioproductive space are devoted to supporting your lifestyle. This can be done by taking the quiz at myfootprint.org.
  2. After you complete the MyFootprint quiz, explore the links provided to discover ways of living more sustainably and with less of an ecological footprint.
  3. Stay tuned!  By making a commitment to learn and act on the practical lifestyle tips at the end of each week’s Torah commentary in Canfei Nesharim’s Eitz Chaim Hee series, one can make a host of lifestyle changes with significant implications for one’s personal stewardship.

 

Notes:

[1] Psalm 8:3-5

[2] Genesis 1:28. The verse continues, “And have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

[3] “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,”by HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. Edited by HaRav David Kohen, the Nazir of Jerusalem. Translated by Rabbi David Sears.

[4] Genesis 2:15

[5] Psalm 24:1

[6] The commentaries on this verse by Radak, Ramban, and Ralbag also shed light on this point.

[7] Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 22:6-7, Deuteronomy 20:19-20

[9] “Study Warns Climate Change and Deforestation will Lead to Declines in Global Bird Diversity,” Physorg.com, June 5th, 2007. Read the article here.

[11] Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13.

[12] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, p. 30.