Author Archives: Rabbi Akiva Wolff

About Rabbi Akiva Wolff

Rabbi Akiva Wolff is director of the environmental responsibility unit of the Center for Business Ethics in Jerusalem. He also teaches environmental management at the Jerusalem College of Technology--Machon Lev.

Time to Clean Up

Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

Our Torah portion begins with the following words:

“Behold I set before you today a blessing and a curse; a blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day, and a curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known. And it shall come to pass, when the Lord your God has brought you to the land to possess it, that you shall put the blessing upon Mount Gerisim, and the curse upon Mount Ebal (Deut 11:26-29).”     

Blessings & Curses in the Environment

While there seems to be no obvious connection in these verses to the quality of the environment, nineteenth century biblical commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch saw a message with deep ecological consequences. He wrote:

canfei nesharim“Gerisim and Ebal are two peaks of the Ephraim range of mountains which still show a striking contrast in their appearance. Gerisim to the south of the valley of Shechem presents a smiling green slope rising in fruit-covered terraces to its summit, Ebal on the north side, steep, bare and bleak, some 2,900 ft. high, slightly higher than Gerisim. The two mounts lying next to each other form accordingly a most speaking, instructive picture of blessing and curse.

They both rise on one and the same soil, both are watered by one and the same fall of rain and dew, the same air breathes over both of them, the same pollen wafts over both of them and yet Ebal remains in barren bleakness while Gerisim is clad to its summit in embellishment of vegetation. In the same way, blessing and curse are not conditional on external circumstances but on our own inner receptivity for the one or the other, on our behavior towards that which is to bring blessing.”

Rabbi Hirsch describes how, particularly in the land of Israel, the difference between blessing and curse can be plainly evident in the physical appearance of an environment. In other words, there is a tangible relationship between the spiritual state of the land and its inhabitants and the physical appearance and quality of the environment.

Trees in Jewish Thought

Reprinted with permission of Canfei Nesharim.

The Mishnah teaches that Tu Bishvat is the new year for the trees. By Tu Bishvat, the majority of the winter rains have already fallen, sap is rising, and new fruits are beginning to form. Therefore, when it comes to mitzvot such as orlah (fruits prohibited in the first three years of a tree’s production), Tu Bishvat distinguishes between the last year’s fruits and the fruits of a new year.Forest

That Tu Bishvat has come to be associated with sensitivity to and appreciation of the natural environment is not by chance. Trees occupy a special place in Jewish thought, which closely relates to man’s relationship with the natural environment, our life-support system. 

Trees in the Midrash

For example, the Midrash in Kohelet Rabbah teaches: “When God created the first man he took him and showed him all the trees  of the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world–for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.'”

This Midrash singles out the trees of the Garden of Eden–rather than the Garden of Eden itself–to represent the natural world, the work of the Creator. Why should trees be chosen to symbolize the natural world?

Trees are at the pinnacle of the plant world, which transforms the earth from a barren and lifeless mass into an environment capable of supporting other forms of life such as animals and humans. We find this expressed in the Midrash Sifrei: “[the phrase] ‘because a man is a tree of the field’ teaches that the life of man is from the tree.” (Piska 203)

Likewise, Rabbenu Bahya, a medieval Jewish philosopher, writes: “The commentators explain that the life of man and his food is [from] a tree of the field…and it is not the way of a wise and understanding nation to needlessly destroy something so worthy, and therefore you should not cut down a tree of the field, rather you should protect it from destruction and damage, and take benefit from it.”

Tragedy of the Commons

Reprinted with permission from A Compendium of Sources in Halacha and the Environment, to be published by Canfei Nesharim.

In 1968, in one of the seminal articles written on the subject of environment protection, Garrett Hardin assured himself a place in the annals of the environmental movement. His article entitled The Tragedy of the Commons became a “must-read” for every budding environmentalist in the nation, if not the world.

The Problem of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons describes the ruination of a common pastureland, called the commons, by the herdsmen who share it. Each herdsman knows that for every additional animal he adds to his herd, he will recoup all the benefits, whereas the costs–in terms of pasturage for the animal and any damage to the commons caused by additional overgrazing–will be shared by everyone. Therefore, each herdsman tries to maximize the size of his herd, at the expense of everyone else.herd of cattle

In Hardin’s words: “Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Hardin uses the hypothetical case of a common pasture to illustrate what he feared would be the fate of mankind in the limited global ecosystem. The environment–our life support system–is also a commons, shared by all. From a narrow economic point of view, it makes sense for each individual or corporation to maximize his profit by exploiting the environment as much as possible. The profits will be all his, and the costs, in terms of pollution and the exhaustion of resources, will have to be shared by everyone using the commons. When a large group of individuals act in this manner, the environment–and ultimately everyone–suffers.

Solving the Problem

Different approaches have been offered towards solving the problem of the commons. Free-market economists suggest that privatization of public resources is the answer. Once the resources go from a public good to a privately-owned good, the owners will have the incentive to conserve, or otherwise protect their property. Others, such as Hardin, take a very different approach. They suggest that the answer is increased government intervention to limit freedom of usage of the commons and protect it for the current and future generations.