Rosh HaShanah and the Environment: Introduction

The Mishnah teaches that there are four New Years: one for the trees, one for kings, one for tithing, and one for the years. Rosh HaShanah, the New Year of years, marks the anniversary of the creation of the world. As we engage in the holy work of t’shuvah, repentance, and self-reflection on our actions, we turn our thoughts to the environment and our role as the stewards of God’s Creation.

Our Jewish tradition teaches the importance of caring for the environment, for we must act as partners with God in preserving His creation. In a midrash from Kohelet Rabbah (Ecclesiastes) 7:13, we learn that, “When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are-- how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’” We have both the power to preserve and guard and the power to destroy and defile. Our tradition teaches that when we do not preserve the environment, we not only destroy life, but we diminish God’s presence in the world.

Current trends in the environment present very significant cause for concern:

  • The World Health Organization estimates that 160,000 people die each year worldwide from the effects of global warming (i.e. heat stroke, increased diseases from insects that thrive in hotter climates, malnutrition from crop destruction). This number could double by 2020.
  • As a direct result of climate change, 25% of all plant and animal species could face extinction by 2050. Since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have increased by more than 30% to levels unsurpassed in the past 800,000 years.
  • The effects of climate change, such as droughts, flooding, and natural disasters, could force as many as 150 million people to migrate from their homes, becoming climate refugees.

Genesis Rabbah 1:15 teaches that scripture at times puts the earth before heaven and other times heaven before earth “to teach that the two are of equal value.” As we turn our minds towards heaven and seek forgiveness and repentance, we must also remember that the earth is of equal importance. Just as we seek to mend our ways, so too should we take this opportunity to recognize all that we do to harm the environment and consider what repair we have the power to do. There is no better way to celebrate the creation of the world during Rosh HaShanah than to recommit ourselves to preserving it.

​For more resources and information on the environment, you can visit the RAC’s Environmental Issues portal.