Learning From Our Mistakes
We do not need to suffer through devastating consequences in order to learn how to live differently.
The sages loved the Jewish people the way a mother loves her child, and wanted the best for them. They therefore ordered Nazir (correction) before Sotah (mistake), so that the Jews would learn to be good and to restrain themselves from temptation, and would thus not need to suffer the pain of their mistakes.
Although the sages understood that one can and should learn from one's mistakes, the intention of the rabbis was that we should use the fences around the Torah to prevent ourselves from mistakes that could cause us pain, suffering, or distance from God.
Learning from Ancient Cultures
Let's look at this from the perspective of our Torah responsibility to protect the environment--our responsibility to protect ourselves and our children from environmental "mistakes" and the damage that our actions might cause.
In the history of the world, many cultures have made mistakes that have caused serious damage to their environments and ultimately to their own well-being. The book Collapse, by the Pulitzer-Prize winning author Jared Diamond, explores ancient and medieval societies that came to new lands and changed their environments, causing such serious consequences that, in the end, the entire society collapsed, leaving only ruins for us to study and learn from.
These settlers, whether in Greenland, Peru, North America, or the Polynesian islands, did not have the benefit of "the wisdom of their mothers" to help them understand the threats that befell them. Deforestation, overgrazing, changes in water use, and other changes had significant impacts on the environments upon which these societies relied. They made mistakes, and as a result, their environment was ultimately unable to sustain them.
When these societies collapsed, the population faced war over scarce resources and starvation. Today we have modern examples of environmental destruction leading to starvation and warfare, such as in the genocide in Darfur, where an estimated 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been left homeless by a conflict that began in part as an agricultural skirmish over water supplies.
Could Our Way of Life Really Change?
As modern people living in the complex and global society of the industrialized world, we tend to be overconfident about our relationship to our land and our ability to create and manage the resources that sustain us. We extract seemingly limitless natural resources using the most advanced technologies of any society in human history.
It seems impossible to imagine that our way of life could ever change, or that environmental impacts could ever truly affect our way of life.
We forget that modern Western society has existed for less than four hundred years. That seems like a long time, when we think of all that has happened in that period. But many cultures survived and thrived in an area of land for longer than four hundred years and were ultimately doomed by the consequences of their environmental choices, combined with unexpected circumstances that they could not change, like variations in weather patterns, or political changes elsewhere.
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