Rabbi Mark Goldsmith (Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue)
Rabbi Rubin took us into Yom Kippur and what we have learned from these days, Rabbi Solomon brought us into Sukkot, let me bring you forward to the other light at the end of the tunnel, for Rabbis at the moment the light at the end of the tunnel is approaching Sukkot and Simchat Torah and Hoshanah Rabbah. So that’s where we are at the moment, making those work.
Let’s go into Simchat Torah a for a moment. In the first mitzvoth, in the first chapter of the Opening Book of the Torah, Genesis 1:28, it’s addressed that Adam, the first human being, in Hebrew, p’ru ur’vu, increase and multiply and fill the earth. This is the mitzvah, the Jewish duty, to develop, to grow, to build for the future. Those words, only the first half of this verse, which inspires the mitzvah, the verse continues: v’khivshuha, ur’du – dominate and rule over the Earth. It’s a tough verse to interpret. Does it mean that we can be irresponsible in the way that humankind uses the earth for our immediate benefit? Or does it mean we have to have a God-like eternal perspective, a sustaining perspective, on how the earth develops?
The direction of Jewish teaching, as far as I can see, has taken the latter part. Certainly, this is the perspective of EcoSynagogue, which aims to encourage synagogues of all sizes, all setups, to be fantastic environmental citizens all around the country.
If we are given the earth on which and by which to live, then we have to do in a sustainable manner, so it can be given on from generation to generation. A Midrash from two thousand years ago features God showing Adam around the Garden of Eden and saying: “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”. (from Kohelet Rabbah).
The requirement not to destroy the world is expressed as a mitzvah in itself: the mitzvah of Bal tashchit. As often in Judaism this mitzvah is derived from an extreme situation. In the Book of Deuteronomy, it’s the rules of warfare, when a city is being besieged in a war, even the aggressor must not destroy the food trees outside or inside the city, so the future is sustainable. How much more so reasoned our Rabbis, should we then conserve the resources that make our lives sustainable in peace times?
And of course, the Shabbat: the day of rest which is a mitzvah for all Jews and anyone who’s in their household, mandates a day every week when we reduce our use of the earth’s resources, pause from new creativity, cut down our impact on the world. And onwards from the Shabbat, the Torah also mandates a year of rest for the land, which next year is going to start right at this time, called shmitah, every seven years; and a restoration of land to its ancestral holders originally, every fifty years, following a further year of rest for the land. Torah mandates that food and productivity must be shared with the disadvantaged in society: the poor, the orphan and the stranger. Behind all of the mitzvoth here, is an essential concept in Judaism that humanity does not own the Earth: God does. And our use of the world is conditional on our respect for it, and our willingness to share it in a sustainable manner, to the benefit of all humanity.
But how is the Jewish perspective on the environment put into action? We’re a small people (there are only forty million of us in the entire world, and within the population of Scotland, I suspect the percentage is pretty low, sadly). We are therefore well aware that any Jewish contribution to sustainable development has to be done always together with other peoples and other faiths. This is why EcoSynagogue exists alongside EcoChurch, EcoMosque, and now EcoGurdwara: EcoSikh. So this is an across-the-faiths effort together.
Judaism lives from generation to generation. We are such a small people, and our history includes several attempts to put an end to us as a faith. So the Jewish mission, is expressed in a prayer recited traditionally three times per day, l'taken olam b'malchut shaddai - that we are God’s partners in repairing the world.
We know the world is broken. Only sustainable development, by as many of the world’s people working together as possible, gives us a hope to repair it, to become the world that God intended Adam, humanity, to steward.