Parashat Vayakhel

Ecology & Shabbat

Shabbat gives us an opportunity to stop trying to control the world.

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

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)."

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted 19th century sage and Torah commentator, comments on this verse: "The Sabbath is a school for teaching the recognition of every other creature beside oneself as being equally a child and object of the same Creator; and this freeing of all creatures from the mastery of the human being is one of the objectives of the Sabbath (commentary to Exodus 32:12)."

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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.