Jewish Values: Protecting Natural Resources

Natural resources are defined as: “naturally occurring substances that are considered valuable in their relatively unmodified (natural) form” (Wikipedia). Natural resources are all the natural commodities and features of the earth’s physical environment that are exploited by human population. They are all the elements used to provide our needs: energy, oil and fuel, forests, water, air, climate and soil. Oftentimes we take for granted the earth and our natural environment. In our modern day, this has proven to be disastrous and quite dangerous. Many of our natural resources are made up of non-renewable resources, which, once used, may not be replenished. Resources such as fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) and those minerals which cannot be recycled are categorized as non-renewable resources. Due to the heavy demands of people, these resources are being depleted and may not be replenished. However, we also use many renewable resources, which can be re-constituted back to the earth and are thus “sustainable.” This means they are assets that can be successfully and constantly recovered, re-used or recycled, or which by careful management, including re-planting, replenishment or good husbandry, can be maintained indefinately for future use and consumption.

The Talmudic sages seemed to understand these ideas when they stated: “It is forbidden to live in a town which has no garden or greenery” (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12). This statement illustrates the importance of the natural world and how vitally imperative it is to live in partnership with, and surrounded by, nature. A world without natural resources and greenery is a world that is unable to sustain itself.

Many fundamental Torah and Rabbinic principles make concrete the Biblical statement, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants” (Psalms 24:1). One such tenet is the Biblical commandment of bal taschit, meaning “do not destroy.” This is a Biblical dictum forbidding the destruction of fruit bearing trees during seige or warfare; it has come to include the mandate that we not waste. We have a moral repsonsiblity to protect that which is God’s and play an active and participatory role in sustaining and preserving the earth. That means, we have to make a concerted effort not to wantonly destroy or waste that which was created, for example, the natural environment and all that encompasses it. 

“Rabbi Eleazar, son of Rabbi Simeon observed, ‘Why does Scripture at times put the earth before heaven and at other times heaven before earth? To teach that the two are of equal value” (Genesis Rabbah 1:15). If, as this midrash teaches us, the earth is just as important as heaven, then the measure of our concern for our natural world should equal our pursuits of holiness and God’s sheltering presence. We should consider what we can do to repair the environment and prevent further harm and destruction as equally important as our ritual and spiritual observances.