Author Archives: Jonathan Neril

Jonathan Neril

About Jonathan Neril

Jonathan Neril is the project manager of the Jewish Environmental Parsha Initiative. He is a rabbinical student in his fourth year of Jewish learning in Israel. He received an MA and BA at Stanford with a focus on global environmental issues.

Living in Balance

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This week’s Torah portion, Mattot, conveys a profound message about the ways in which we struggle to balance material and spiritual aspirations. With the Jewish people poised on the east bank of the Jordan River in what is now modern-day Jordan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad make a strange request of Moses. They ask his allowance to settle where they are rather than receiving their portion in the Land of Israel.

In describing the event, the Torah notes the two tribes’ abundant livestock and records their query as follows: “Enclosures for the flock we shall build here for our livestock and cities for our children (Numbers 32:16).”

Moses is disturbed by this request and sharply rebukes them. He demands that the men of Reuben and Gad fight alongside their brethren in conquest of Israel, and then continues in pointed reversal of their original statement of intention: “So build yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your sheep.”

Conflicting Values

Many commentators contrast the seemingly problematic request of the leaders of Reuben and Gad with Moses’ incisive response. The great Torah commentator Rashi cites the Midrash that states, “They were concerned for their property more than (they were) for their sons and daughters, for they put (mention) of their livestock ahead of their children. Moses said to them: This is not right! Make that which is essential essential, and that which is secondary secondary. First build cities for your children, and afterward, enclosures for your sheep.” Their fundamental error, says the Midrash, was in allowing secondary values to trump primary ones. 

Reuben and Gad found themselves caught in a web of conflicting values. On the one hand they saw in Jordan marvelous pasture land, holding the promise of material bounty and a comfortable life. On the other hand God had promised them a portion in Israel, where they could truly connect to the holiness of the land and their people.

Water Consciousness

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This week’s Torah portion, Hukkat, can be viewed as a narrative about the Jewish people and water. Water–in Hebrew, mayim–is mentioned 22 times. The portion begins with God’s command to mix water with the ashes of a red cow for purification. Next, Miriam dies, and the well which provided the Israelites with water disappears. The Jewish people quarrel with Moses, complaining (Numbers 20:3), “There is no water to drink!” Moses and Aaron strike the rock and God brings forth water.

Next, Moses asks the Edomites to pass through their land, with a promise not to drink their water, or alternately, to buy it from them. Then the Jewish people travel by way of the Sea of Reeds–where God had split the sea for them–and on their desert journey complain again about lacking water. They arrive in modern-day Jordan and sing an exultant song about their appreciation to God for water. Finally, the Torah portion ends with them encamped on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.

Learning to be Appreciative

What is God teaching us through the Torah’s water narrative? The Jews’ experiences with water in the desert can be understood as a spiritual training to cultivate appreciation for God’s goodness. God takes the essential, tangible resource of water and gives it to us in environments where we do not have it.

We learn to appreciate water and to know Who really provides it through the process described here of taking water for granted, losing it, and then being given it by God. In an ultimate sense, water does not nourish us. God does. Water is one of the chief means by which God provides life to us every day. The see-saw experience of having water and then losing it is the means to develop the spiritual muscles of appreciating God.

Yet, always being on the positive side of having water leads a person to take it for granted. Today, piped water is incredibly convenient; it relieves us from carrying our water from streams and cisterns to our homes. Today, people in the West tend to lack an appreciation of where water comes from, and they end up wasting and polluting it. Where appreciation ends, misuse begins.

The Blessing of Rain

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Praying for rain is a key part of the spiritual life of a Jew. For almost half of the year, our daily prayers include praise of God as the One who “makes the wind blow and the rain descend” and a request that God will “give dew and rain for a blessing on the face of the earth.”

A special blessing for rain appears in the liturgy of the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, at the beginning of Israel’s rainy season. We pray that the Divine bring beneficial rain, which falls at the right time to nourish our crops and fill our reservoirs. As the Talmud says, “The day when rain falls is as great as the day on which heaven and earth were created (Ta’anit 8b).”

Rain as Blessing and Curse

But it is not enough to just pray for rain. The Torah teaches that our actions impact the rain as well. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, B’hukotai, we read that rainfall is a function of our doing God’s will. If Israel keeps the Torah, God says, “I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit… you will eat your food to satiety, and you will live in security in your land, and I will grant peace in the Land (Leviticus 26:4-6).”

canfei nesharimThis promise of abundant rains and prosperity is followed by a warning that, should Israel ignore the Torah, God will “make your skies like iron”–cease all rains and bring drought, according to the Midrash. Conversely, the fact that we specifically ask that the rain be “for a blessing” acknowledges that too much rain is just as dangerous as not enough. 

In a number of instances in the Tanakh, God sent rain that was a curse, not a blessing. The Flood came to punish the generation for transgressing God’s will. Rashi explains that the rains of blessing became a destructive flood when the people refused to repent. In the time of the prophet Samuel, God brought thunder and rain to chastise the people (Samuel I 12:17-18).

Ecology & Shabbat

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Our Torah portion this week, Vayakhel, begins with Moses assembling the entire community of Israel and commanding them in the mitzvah that many say is the essence of Judaism: “These are the things that the Lord commanded to make. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Lord… (Exodus 35:1-3).”

canfei nesharimRabbi Norman Lamm, former chancellor of Yeshiva University, writes: “Perhaps the most powerful expression of the Bible’s concern for man’s respect for the integrity of nature as the possession of its Creator, rather than his own preserve, is the Sabbath…The six workdays were given to man in which to carry out the commission to ‘subdue’ the world, to impose on nature his creative talents. But the seventh day is a Sabbath; man must cease his creative interference in the natural order (the Halakhah’s definition of melakhah or work), and by this act of renunciation demonstrate his awareness that the earth is the Lord’s and that man therefore bears a moral responsibility to give an accounting to its Owner for how he has disposed of it during the days he ‘subdued’ it…”

“…A new insight into Jewish eschatology: not a progressively growing technology and rising GNP, but a peaceful and mutually respectful coexistence between man and his environment (“Ecology in Jewish Law and Theology” in Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought, p. 163-4).”

All Living Creatures

According to Jewish tradition, the very way we relate to the world is embodied by how we act on the Sabbath. The ways we act, and don’t act, define how we understand our place in the world vis-a-vis our Creator. 

One example of this is found in our relationship with the earth’s creatures. The Torah teaches that the mitzvah of Shabbat includes an instruction to allow our animals to experience rest and contentment on the seventh day: “Six days shall you do your tasks, and on the seventh day you shall cease, so that your ox and your donkey may be content (Exodus 23:12).”

Love of God and Material Desire

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The Ten Commandments given in Parashat Yitro culminate with the command not to covet: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:14).” Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, a 19th century Torah commentator, explores this commandment, offering a Jewish approach to spiritual living and material consumption.

Rabbi Mecklenberg relates this verse to another commandment: “you shall love the Eternal One your God with all your heart (Deuteronomy 6:5).” Why, Rabbi Mecklenberg asks, would it not have been sufficient to write “You shall love God… with your heart”? What is the significance of “all your heart”?

My Cup Overfloweth

The Torah emphasizes loving God with all of one’s heart, Rabbi Mecklenberg explains, to teach that a person should be totally committed to serving God, and not split between love of the Eternal and love of physical pleasures. When a person is wholly in love with the Infinite One, that person will not feel an attraction to material indulgence.

canfei nesharimRabbi Mecklenburg uses the metaphor of a cup, filled to the brim, with no room for anything else–representing a person full of love of God, with no room for pure physicality. Such an individual feels so satiated in his or her core that the desire for gratification from the physical world totally evaporates.

Love of God can keep physical lust at bay, and filling one’s cup with connection to God can prevent over-attachment to physical pleasures. That’s why, in our Torah portion, God ends the Ten Commandments with “Do not covet.” After all, how can one stand before God in love after indulging in the most base physical desires–for comfort, money, food, and sexual pleasure?

In addition, if a person prefers to indulge always in the next available pleasure, he or she will have little patience for the spiritual work and sacrifice that often only bring satisfaction after much time and commitment.

Small Vessels

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Before Jacob‘s epic encounter with Esau, reuniting with his brother after decades of estrangement, Jacob brings his family and possessions across a stream. He then returns at night to the other side of the stream, and the Torah narrates that: “Jacob remained alone.” The rabbis see the word “alone” (levado) as superfluous, and understand it as related to the similar sounding lecado, “for his vessel,” yielding, “Jacob remained for his vessel.”

canfei nesharimThat is, say the rabbis, he re-crossed the stream at night to recover a few small vessels he forgot to bring across. Why does Jacob, facing an imminent confrontation with Esau and his 400-man militia, leave his family alone and vulnerable at night to recover a few forgotten flasks? Why were they so important to him?

The seeming absurdity of Jacob’s action becomes understandable when one examines his worldview: he believes that everything in his possession comes from God, has a specific purpose, and must be used to its full potential. As one rabbinic commentary explains, each material item that a righteous person uses is a means toward spiritual repair in the world. Jacob went back for the vessels to ensure they were used in the optimal way. Had he not, their full potential would not have been realized.

Against Wastefulness

The truly righteous recognize the value of their God-given possessions, and are very careful with them, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant they are. While not overly attached to material things, they do not dispose of objects prematurely or use them inappropriately. Indeed, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan, on his deathbed, told his students to remove the vessels from his room lest they become contaminated by his corpse, and thereby unusable (Berakhot 28b).

The Sefer HaChinuch offers insight into the spiritual root of Jacob’s action. Regarding the commandment not to wastefully destroy anything (bal tashchit), he writes:

Rain as a Blessing

Reprinted with permission from Canfei Nesharim.

Thank God for water! Without it we could not survive. On the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, which follows the festival of Sukkot, we make a special blessing for rain. We also begin mention in the daily prayers of God as the One who “makes the wind blow and the rain descend.” What does it mean for us to pray for rain? What does our praying for rain demand of us? And what role do rain and water play in our lives?


Water Nourishes Life

As we are well aware, water is essential to life. It nourishes us when we drink it, cook with it, or use it to irrigate our crops. It surrounded the world when God created the earth, and surrounds a fetus as it grows in its mother’s womb. Plants depend on water to produce energy in photosynthesis. That is why plants spring up around water. Just look at a satellite map of any river and you will see a lot of green vegetation on both banks of the river.

So we pray that the Divine bring rain that nourishes our crops and fills our reservoirs. Beneficial rain. At the right times. As the Talmud says in Masehet Ta’anit, “The day when rain falls is as great as the day on which heaven and earth were created” (8b). Or as Rabbi Levi ben Chiyata says in the Midrash, “Without rain earth could not endure” (Bereshit Rabbah, 13:3). In particular in the semi-arid land of Israel, water is a sign of its being a “good land” (see Deuteronomy 8:7).

God’s power is manifest in rain. The Gemara discusses why the Mishnah’s mention of rain in the second blessing of the Amidah is phrased as “the power of rain” and not just as “rain” (Ta’anit 2a). The Sages explain, based on a comparison between word usages in three verses, that rain comes down with power and reflects the power of God. The Midrash quotes Rabbi Hoshaiah as saying, “The power involved in making rain is as formidable as that of all of the works of creation” (Bereshit Rabbah 13:4). Rain is a tremendous force God has put into the world. Altering it in even small ways can have big effects on people and on the planet.