Shemitah & Climate Change

If we ignore God's will that we care for the earth now, we risk losing everything in the future.

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Who Really Suffers

The costs of not embracing the concept of shemitah, of voluntarily letting the land rest, often seem inconsequential to those of us who rarely kneel to uproot a carrot. We who strip the earth of its natural resources at the fastest rate, who have the most financial leeway to make cuts in our production and consumption, who are most divorced from the earth, are least affected by the costs of this negligence.

Instead, the world’s poor, those least responsible for dumping carbon into our atmosphere, are impacted by our actions. By 2015, an estimated 375 million people, most of them in poor countries, will be adversely affected by climate change annually through natural disasters.

Climate change, of course, exposes everyone in the world to more floods, droughts, and other natural disasters, but the impact that these catastrophes have on people is almost entirely determined by their vulnerability: the physical strength of their homes, the safety of their clean water supply, their proximity to rivers and oceans, and their food security.

For this reason, poor people will bear the overwhelming brunt of increasing natural disasters due to climate change. Those who earn subsistence livings by farming or whose lives depend on how the river runs, need us to embrace the concept of shemitah because they suffer the consequences of our complacency.

The clear message of this parashah is that if we ignore God’s will that we care for the earth now, we risk losing everything in the future. In our case this will happen through climate change rather than biblical exile. The natural disasters that we see more frequently are the earth’s way of taking by force the shemittah, or rest, that we are denying it.

While the laws of shemitah may seem foreign to those of us living far from the land and outside the Land of Israel, the lessons it teaches--to safeguard and protect the land, lest our overuse of its resources force us into a situation where we no longer have the option of safeguarding and protecting it--ring terrifyingly true.

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Adina Gerver

Adina Gerver, a freelance writer and editor, is studying at the Advanced Scholars Program of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. She has served as assistant director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning and program officer at the Covenant Foundation.