Torah for Today: Climate change

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Torah for Today: Climate change

Rabbi David Mason takes a topical issue and offers and Orthodox perspective

Front view of small child holding placard poster on landfill, environmental pollution concept.
Front view of small child holding placard poster on landfill, environmental pollution concept.

Later in the month, world leaders and activists from across the world will gather in Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26 to agree on how we can ensure the stable future of our world. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the climate summit will be a “turning point for humanity”. So, what does the Torah say about saving our planet?

Looking after our world is rooted in the story of Creation. There, God makes Adam, the first person, and places Adam in the Garden of Eden. We are told that Adam is put there ‘l’ovda ul’shomra’. 

This means that Adam was asked to do two things – to work the garden, and to guard or preserve it. The world and its abundance are given over to humanity. 

We are permitted to work the land, and extract what we need from it. But that extraction must be balanced by an obligation to protect the world, and to allow it to sustain itself. 

For much of human history, these two concepts could live in harmony. It was put so well by the 18th century German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, who said in his Torah commentary that “nature itself finds its appointed purpose promoted, as well as the necessary condition for its continuance, in man’s conscientious dutiful use of the bounties of nature, as expressed by avoda and shmira”. 

People would find their nourishment from the land and sea, but always allow it to regrow and recultivate. Over the past roughly 200 years, from the Industrial Revolution onwards, we have been extracting for mass production, and often for profit, with less awareness of what this would do to the planet. 

Now we know that overextraction is threatening the stability of our planet. We need to return desperately to this Biblical statement and reflect on how we can bring our benefiting from the planet back into line with its protection. 

  • Rabbi David Mason serves Muswell Hill Synagogue

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