The Conflict of Yaakov and Esav

by Rabbi Shaul Judelman


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The narrative of Yaakov (Jacob) and Esav (Esau) is an epic that contains within it a conflict that is very alive; and which all of us can probably feel, once we translate it from Torah language into our own words and concepts.

Kabalistic interpretations teach that Esav’s soul came from the world of Tohu (chaotic, energetic, and wild).[1]  This phrase refers back to the story of creation (Genesis 1:2) and the status of the world before light and the beginning of order. Tohu is a spiritual state that has very recognizable manifestations in this world. In environmental language it would be deemed as unsustainable, though it is far more than this. Tohu is often dominated by urge over thought, the moment over the future. Esav represents this world in many of his actions.

As the verses in Toldot describe the growth of the two children, “Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field- while Jacob was a simple (up front) man who sat in tents.”[2]  We can interpret this as saying Esav lives his life in the field, a place of open uncertainty, while Jacob is of the tent and the home, a place of stability and conviction.  Esav and Jacob are destined for conflict, as prophetically related to Rebecca when she went to inquire of the unrest she felt in her womb. She was told that she played host to two destinies, and rather vaguely that the greater will serve the younger. The dichotomy here is between the driving force of Esav’s unbridled desire, and Jacob’s tikkun of this urge. This is the tension that pervades their interactions.

As Esav returns from a day of hunting (and perhaps much more abrasive activities, suggests the Gemara: murder, rape and more), Jacob has been cooking soup.[3]  In these verses we are seemingly told incidentally that Esav is called Edom because of his desire for the red, red soup to be poured down his throat upon his coming home tired. What is phenomenal in the story of Esav selling his birthright to Jacob is his reasoning why the soup is more important. “Behold I will die, and for what is this birthright for me?”[4]  The Torah’s description of this story has deep repercussions for a society that so readliy swallows the values of Esav.

The culture that wants things NOW has given us fast food, fast cars, and quickly melting polar ice caps.  This culture is out of balance.  What does balance mean?  Balance means that my own physical needs are accorded to out of a nexus of relationships. These might include other people’s needs, my future needs, or the availability of resources. There is a strong critique within environmental discourse against the nature of the society that developed modern technology. However, this is not a diatribe against technology or modernity, but it is a strong statement about the manner in which we pour things down our throat.  This analysis occurs both on the personal level, our private consumption habits, as well as on the societal level, regarding our willingness to manufacture and pursue ways of living that have not yet proven their balance. Esav and the energies of Tohu have a tendency towards destruction. The kings of Esav that ruled and died at the end of parshat Va’Yetze are referred to in Kabbala as the elements of the creation process that couldn’t last or sustain themselves.[5]  They are referred to as the worlds that were destroyed. The lights broke the vessels. The desires and abilities of the lights shattered the physical world’s capacity to contain them.

The Kings of Esav are still alive (though maybe not for long!) in our day.  Consider the following popular statistic: if the whole world lived with the same consumption pattern as the average American, it would take 5.3 earths to support everyone.[6]   Esav is living today as if he’s going to die tomorrow. That is not without a kernel of truth.  He will. The question is really will we leave an earth for our children to inherit? Will there be fresh drinking water, fish in seas, and monkeys in the trees? Will our children be able to run around and inhale fresh air? In some places we are already seeing sad answers to these questions.

In his commentary on parsha Vayeshev, which directly follows the Torah’s listing of the 7 kings of Esau that ruled and fell, the Mei haShiloach (a Chassidic commentary) makes a dramatic statement. He says that the process of refinement within Israel begins in this parsha.

Many years after Jacob flees in the face of Esav’s anger, he returns. This time he returns not alone, but with his wives, children and flocks. Esav also does not greet him alone, but is accompanied by a gang of 400 men and their horses. Towards the end of their meeting, where a relative peace is made, Esav offers to Jacob that they should travel together. Jacob replies with an environmental imperative strongly akin to that of the Native Americans pledge to the Seventh Generation:[7]  “My master must pass before his servant. And I will lead to the slower pace of my work that is before me, and the pace of the children until I reach you in Seir…And Esav returned on his way to Seir. And Jacob traveled to Sukot, where he built dwellings for the animals…”[8]

And thus the paths of our two ways split. Esav/ Edom/ Western Civilization continued at its own rapid pace and with its own volatile philosophies. And as the Jacobean/Israel ideal, we have traveled our own unique path. We are destined for the same place- As the Torah says- “Yitzchak (Isaac) loved Esav.” We are not to totally disengage Esav, as tradition holds that Yitzchak saw the morsels of good that Esav beheld.[9]  The fruits of technology and Western thought are indeed many.

As environmentalists, we must learn the lesson that Yaakov tries to give to Esav: that the considerations for our children and animals must also determine the pace of our travel. We must find sustainable vessels for our tremendous abilities of creation. When we relate to the moment at hand, our attention must focus on our shared futures on this earth, and we must always try and remember to make responsible decisions that are in accordance with this reality.



[1] Etz Chaim,  Heichal HaNikudim (Shaar 8, ff.)
[2] Breishit 25:27
[3] Baba Batra 16:
[4] Breishit 25, 32-4
[5] Arizal- Likutei Torah on parshat Vayetze
[6] ecofoot
[7]  The Seventh Generation Fund was founded to, among other objectives, “revise the decline in traditional, family-scale farming among the community by developing educational programs that demonstrate sustainable agriculture.
[8] Breishit 33:13-14
[9] Arizal Etz Chaim sha’ar 208, 3

Parshat Toldot: Digging the Wells: The Importance of Protecting Our Natural Resources

By Rabbi Yuval Cherlow


(translated from the original Hebrew by Ariel Shalem)

The Parsha of Toldot is dedicated by Baruch and Ora Sheinson, in honor of our son, Mordechai Yaakov Sheinson. 

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

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The limited resources of the world we live in affect wide spheres of influence. To the extent that a resource is more essential and uncompromising in its need, the more potential it has to lead to conflict and war.

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, Yitzchak (Isaac) faces conflict with the Philistines and the people of Gerar rooted in the age-old struggle surrounding the scarcity of water.[1] The shepherds of Gerar claim, “The water is ours,” (Gen. 26:20)[2] and effectively expel Yitzchak from the area of the well in contention, forcing him to find a new source of water.

Contrary to this behavior, the Philistines simply fill up the wells Yitchak used with dirt. The desires of the Philistines to hurt Yitzchak as a result of their jealousy toward him[3] brought them to the place where they preferred to destroy their own ability to draw water from the wells in order to attain a political end.

The issue of water is one of the most primary issues – perhaps even the largest issue- impacting the environment and more directly and immediately influencing mankind’s current quality of living. We are not merely dealing with a potential environmental crisis that threatens tomorrow’s generations, but with environmental questions that have very concrete and specific ramifications in today’s world.

Water is the concern that requires us to directly face the undeniable and harsh realization that the world’s natural resources are critically limited, and that all of creation is dependent on the existence of these natural treasures.

Our Torah portion can offer us insight as to how to deal with ’s contemporary water crisis. The first teaching is the necessity to remove natural resources from the realm of destruction in times of conflict and war. The fact that the Philistines deliberately filled up the wells of Yitzchak in order to expel him from their midst reflects the dangers of war and the need to protect natural resources even in times of serious conflict.

The Torah comes to place limits on our ability to respond harshly during war and forbids us from wantonly destroying fruit-bearing trees as a military tactic.[4] Even in the midst of struggle one must take the “day after” into consideration and understand the profound need for sustainability for both sides of the conflict.

The second narrative in our Torah describes the process of developing additional water sources. Yitzchak was forced to abandon the wells of his father, as well as some of his own wells, and continuously searched for new sources of water.[5] We too are bound by the unremitting task to develop supplementary sources of water and must avoid relying solely on what exists.

There are many ways to acquire new sources of water. One possible solution is to gather rainwater (as opposed to letting it flow to the Mediterranean ) in ways that balance the needs of the ecosystem with the human need for more water.

We should be investing more effort in preserving an efficient maintenance of the national aqueduct, and at the same time eliminating even more than we already have the waste and negligence which accounts for much lost water. One example: rather than have an open channel from which water is lost by evaporation, we can use closed tunnels.

Additionally, one of the greatest sources for increased water supply is through the purification of recycled water – something already done in ’s agricultural sector. An increased investment in this technology is critical.

Although the ethics for wise and appropriate water consumption practices are not found in our Torah portion, it is nonetheless included in the general prohibition of wanton destruction (ba’al tashchit). Due to the direct connection between water and life, the conservation of water becomes a halachic obligation, deriving its source from the laws concerning the mitzvah “You shall not stand idly by while your brothers blood is spilt,” (Lev. 19:16) as well as part of the prohibition of ba’al tashchit.[6]

In Israel’s private sector, what we are speaking of could translate into a small yet significant conservation of water: turning off the faucet when not in use, watering plants and gardens only at night, using only landscaping that is appropriate for Israel’s dry climate, e.g., no lawns in the desert or golf courses in Israel, water-conserving ways of car washing, and requiring efficient and minimized water tanks above toilets, and more.

On an Israeli national and industrial level, the challenge is more complex. First and foremost, there must be a government-led initiative toward proper commercial consumption and water usage, including the establishment of an appropriate price of water that would discourage the growing of products that demand exorbitant amounts of water, the management of agricultural consumption and waste of water, and the prudent use of water in the industrial sector.

The water issue in the State of Israel plays out in the international arena in two ways. On one hand, what we see in our Torah portion is also what we see in our newspaper headlines. One of our national existential struggles is our attempt to establish control over the Jordan River ’s precious sources of water, which are partially found in enemy states.

Geopolitically, our regional neighbors suffer from similar water problems, and the lack of water in our arid region only adds fuel to the already existing political conflagrations, thus contributing to the fears that water sources will be deliberately destroyed or poisoned or our enemies will find an additional pretext to attack the state of Israel.

On the other hand, this could be a very fine hour for the Jewish Nation to solve this regional and global concern. Israel’s resourcefulness has already proven to contribute many solutions to water scarcity. Drip irrigation is an Israeli invention that caused a revolution in agriculture,[7] and boasts the largest desalinization plant in the world.[8]

If Israel would continue to invest its intellectual prowess towards this complex issue, it could not only solve its regional issues but also bring well-being to the entire globe. First, it could minimize the amount of deaths that occur each year from thirst and water contamination. It could also rehabilitate regions in the world that have exhausted their natural resources as a result of ignorant water management. Finally, it could increase the global output of food by unleashing the latent power that nature possesses.

Furthermore, Israel could lead the way in fostering a new culture: One that promotes a sustainable relationship to water consumption and our environment.  A culture that incorporates future realities in the decisions of today. A culture that consumes a more modest and humble share of the planet’s limited resources. A culture where humans understand that they are the crowns of creation and hence have a responsibility to actively protect and preserve the planet. A culture that does not destroy our planet’s resources out of political interests, but cultivates them in order to future world peace.

This idyllic culture and the peace that it merits is described in our prophecies concerning the end of days:

Then the lame man will skip like a gazelle and the tongue of the mute will sing glad song. For water will have broken out in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The scorched place will become a pond and the parched place- springs of water. The abode where the jackals rested will become grassland with reeds and bulrushes.  (Isaiah 35:6-7)

Although this passage is allegorical, we are not allowed to ignore the literal meaning of the text. The “blossoming desert,” turning into a powerhouse of developing new water sources for herself and for the whole world, is not only a metaphor for the redemption of humankind – it is the redemption itself.

Suggested Action Items:

  1. To save water, make a commitment to turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth, between washing hands, and while lathering dishes.  This small action will raise your consciousness about all your water use.
  2. Learn about water challenges in the Land of Israel and in your local community.
  3. To find great actions to protect water in your home, visit this article.

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.

Ariel Shalem was born and raised in Los Angeles and made aliyah to in 1995. He recieved a BA in English Literature from Bar Ilan Univeristy and is currently learning in the Rabbinical ordination program at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in .  He is also an educator and encourages his high school students to think openly and consciously about themselves and their environment.





[1] According to the simplest reading of the text, the Philistines are a people living in the land of Gerar. However, the text differentiates between the actions of the shepards of Gerar and the actions of the Philistines.
[2] All scriptural translations have been taken from The Stone Edition Tanach, Mesorah Publications.
[3]   Gen. 26:14: “…and the Philistines envied him (Yitzchak).”
[4]   Deut. 20:19: “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down…”
[5] See Gen. 26:18-22.
[6] The biological perspective, which essentially states that water equals life (and the inverse), also gives credence to our global reality where lack of water translates into conflict, war, starvation, illness and devastation.
[7] Read more about Israel’s efforts to innovate in water management technology: “Watering a Thirsty Planet.”
[8] Click on this article for more information about advanced Israeli water technologies.

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.


[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

[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 . 





[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 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:

[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.