Saving the Earth’s Environment

“Blessed is the One Who has compassion on the earth.” (From the morning prayer known as Baruch Sh’amar).


Dear Friends.


I recall that in the early 1990’s, a group of Dutch environmentalists tried to get a bill passed which would establish one day a week as a day without cars (with the exception of emergency vehicles), in order to save energy and reduce pollution. Although the citizens of Holland are known for their environmental awareness, the bill was defeated. One does not have to be a sociologist to realize that many people in our modern society are addicted to the automobile, and such a bill would probably be defeated in most countries.


When I read the media reports about this proposed bill, I thought of the Torah-observant communities where people refrain from driving their cars one day a  week – the sacred day of Shabbos. As we discussed previously, and as we shall discuss again, Shabbos is the sacred day when we refrain from performing certain kinds of creative work which demonstrate human control over the environment, in order to remind ourselves that the Compassionate One is the true Owner and Sovereign of the earth. Driving a car is one of the activities which we do not do on Shabbos. My own neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, is a Torah-observant community; thus, people do not drive their cars on Shabbos, with the exception of life-threatening emergencies. In addition, most of the streets in our neighborhood are closed to traffic on Shabbos, with the exception of emergency vehicles. On Shabbos, the streets are full of people, rather than cars, and we also get visitors from nearby neighborhoods, including people who are not committed to the path of the Torah, as they like to walk on the peaceful car-free, tree-lined streets.


Why do Torah-committed Jewish men and women have the will and the discipline to give up their cars on Shabbos? The beginning of an answer can be found in the following words from the Torah where the Compassionate One reveals a reason why Abraham was chosen to be the founding patriarch of our people:


“For I have known him, because he commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Compassionate One, doing tzedakah and mishpat” (Genesis 18:19).


“Tzedakah and mishpat” – Tzedakah refers to good actions which nurture life (such as helping those in need), and mishpat refers to refraining from performing evil actions which harm life. (Commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to Genesis 15:6)


Abraham gives over to his children and all future generations the mandate to nurture and protect life through tzedakah and mishpat. This mandate is the way of the Compassionate One; thus, it expresses the higher and absolute Divine truth which his children and all the future generations are to serve.


They are to serve this truth even when it demands that they give up their cars one day a week!


Abraham’s message regarding this higher Divine truth – the way of the Compassionate One - is not the message that is being stressed in the modern secular culture of our age; in fact, a philosophy that has becoming increasingly popular in our modern age is the philosophy of moral relativism. According to this philosophy, there are no higher, absolute truths, for each person is free to be his own god and create his own truth.  In other words, no opinion or value is ultimately better than another, as it simply depends on your point of view. Yes, one person may feel that “tzedakah” –  helping those in need - is his personal truth, and another person may feel that being a miser is his personal truth. Yes, one person may feel that decreasing energy consumption in order to save the environment for future generations is his personal truth, and another person may feel that giving priority to his own desires for pleasure and wealth is his personal truth. From the perspective of the moral relativist, who is to say which view is better? 


Some progressive activists have begun to challenge the philosophy of moral relativism which has become popular within certain progressive circles. For example, a critique of moral relativism appeared in the Forward, a progressive Jewish newspaper, on March 18th, 2005, and the author is Joshua Halberstam, a New York writer who taught philosophy at New York University and at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. The title of his article is, “Will the Left Finally Talk About What Matters?” The article discusses how many progressive activists have abandoned the concept of absolute ethical and moral values, and he writes:

Underlying this endemic inhibition to assert moral judgments is a pervasive, crude relativism. Perhaps nowhere is this stance more rooted than on the college campus, among both professors and their students. Ethical relativists stipulate that no ethical position can be objectively true or false, for all values are simply reflections of one’s culture (or, in some versions, one’s personal taste). From the presumption, “It is true that everyone has an equal right to an opinion,” they conclude blithely, “Therefore everyone's opinion is equally true.” Such simplistic relativism is not only philosophically vacuous, but also socially pernicious. Not all points of view deserve respect. In fact, genuine moral equivalence is rarely the case — some claims are more legitimate than others.


Moral Relativism is actually an ancient philosophy, and the first argument on behalf of moral relativism was made by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, when it persuaded the human being to violate the Divine mandate by eating from the forbidden fruit. The serpent said:


“You will surely not die; for God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis. 3:4).


Through this argument, human beings are tempted to become like God, and thereby decide for themselves what is “good and evil.” In this particular story, the human being decides that what is “good” is what gratifies the desires of the body, and what is “evil” is what denies the human being the immediate gratification of these desires (Genesis 3:6).


Is not this the story of our modern age? Many people in our generation have been influenced by the philosophy of moral relativism, which gives them the freedom to be selfish; thus, they are not very concerned about the survival of the environment for future generations. After all, the concept of “forbidden fruit” is not their truth. This selfish attitude is a major reason why the efforts and campaigns of environmental activists have not yet succeeded in persuading most members of our modern society to develop the discipline that is needed to save the earth’s environment.


We, the People of the Torah, are only a tiny fraction of one percent of the world’s population. Is there a way in which our small people can help save the earth’s environment?  


Through the power of our own example, we must convey the message that the ultimate solution to the environmental crisis is a spiritual one. The earth is not well, and it is in need of healing; however, it is not enough to treat the symptoms, for we must also address the root cause. We can begin by rededicating ourselves to serving the higher, life-giving truth proclaimed by our father, Abraham – “the way of the Compassionate One, doing tzedakah and mishpat.” In this spirit, the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed:


“Listen to me, pursuers of righteousness, seekers of the Compassionate One: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who will give birth to you” (Isaiah 51:1,2 - commentary of Rashi)


If we return to these roots, we can not only help save the earth’s environment; we can also regain the Garden of Eden, as the Prophet adds:


“For the Compassionate One will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her ruins; He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her wasteland like the Garden of the Compassionate One; joy and gladness will be found there, thanksgiving and the sound of music” (Isaiah 51:3).


Be Well, and Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


P.S. We discussed the unique and powerful role of Sarah in previous letters of this series. For examples, visit the updated archive of this series which appears on our website.

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