20 September 2015 - 7 Tishri 5776 - ז' תשרי ה' אלפים תשע"ו
Relating Tisha B'av to today's environmental crises Print E-mail

Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av ), which occurs this year on 10 August, commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. The first Temple was destroyed after the Jews failed to heed the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah.

Today, modern day “Jeremiahs” are warning that it is not just Jerusalem, but the entire world that faces destruction, from global warming and other environmental threats.

Some noted climate experts, including James Hansen of NASA, are warning that global warming could reach a tipping point and spin out of human control within a decade, with catastrophic consequences, unless major changes are soon made.

Environmentalists are also warning that the world faces many other environmental threats, including rapid species extinction, destruction of tropical rain forests and other valuable habitats, soil erosion and depletion and pollution of air and water. Unfortunately, as in the time of Jeremiah, these increasingly strong warnings are generally being ignored.

Jeremiah stressed that people should apply basic Jewish teachings to avoid the looming catastrophe. Today, as well, the application of basic Jewish environmental teachings can help us avoid modern perils. These teachings include:

• We are to be co-workers with God in working to protect the environment.
• We are to work the land and to guard it (Genesis 2:15); hence, we are to be shomrei ha’adamah, guardians of the Earth.
• We are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value (bal tashchit, based on Deuteronomy 20: 19. 20).

Jewish sages connected the word “eichah” (alas! what has befallen us?) that begins the reading of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av and a word that has the same root “ayekah” (“Where art thou?”), the question addressed to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

In order to avoid having to mournfully recite “eichah” regarding present results of global warming, perhaps we have to properly respond to “ayekah” today by answering “hineni,” here I am, ready to apply Jewish teachings in response to current environmental threats.

The reading of the book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av is meant to awaken the Jewish people to the need to return to God’s ways, by showing the horrors that resulted when God’s teachings were ignored.

The readings on Tisha B’Av help to sensitise us so that we will hear the cries of lament and change our ways. Rabbi Yochanan stated “Jerusalem was destroyed because the residents limited their decisions to the letter of the law of the Torah, and did not perform actions that would have gone beyond the letter of the law” (‘lifnim meshurat hadin’) (Baba Metzia 30b). in this time of major environmental threats, widespread hunger, and epidemics of chronic degenerative diseases, perhaps it is necessary that Jews go beyond the strict letter of the law and play out our mandated role to be a “light unto the nations” in leading in efforts to reduce global warming and other environmental problems.

In view of the many threats to humanity today, it is important that Jews enhance their commemoration of the spiritually meaningful holiday of Tisha B’Av by making it a time to begin striving even harder to live up to Judaism’s highest moral values and teachings.

On this solemn occasion, we should learn from our history and heed a basic lesson of the holiday -- that failure to respond to proper admonitions can lead to catastrophe.

The Jewish people must make tikkun olam a major focus in Jewish life today, and consider personal and societal changes that will reduce environmental threats.. By doing this, we would be performing a great kiddush Hashem (sanctifi - cation of God’s Name) by helping move our imperiled planet to a sustainable path, and by showing that Judaism’s eternal values have relevance to today’s critical issues.


Supplied by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island & President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV)

Author of “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” “Judaism and Global Survival,” and “Mathematics and Global Survival,” and over 130 articles at www.JewishVeg.com/ schwartz


(Issue July/August 2008) 

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