Thursday, 28 Aug 2014

Written by Rabbi Larry Tabick

The Ecology of the Spirit

The destruction of the environment through human actions is one of those news themes that does not seem to die. With the approaching extinction of numerous species through over-exploitation or sheer carelessness, it is never far from the headlines of our media. Wars and epidemics come and thankfully, go, filling our consciousness, but then fading away, but the environment with all its issues remains. Of course, it always formed the background to all of our activities, but now we have slowly realised that the background is deteriorating before our eyes, and needs to come into the foreground.

As a Jew and a rabbi, I love it when I realise that the Torah got there ahead of us, at least in potentia. And here is a case in point.

Deuteronomy 20:19 says that if we are laying siege to a city we are not allowed to cut down the fruit trees to make our siege engines and bulwarks. It seems to me that part of the point of this is that, whatever the outcome of the siege, whether the city is conquered or not, people will have to live in the area, and so at least part of the food-producing environment needs protecting.

Of course, this is not a full-blown environmental theology, but it’s a start. The Talmud takes us further when it turns the prohibition of destroying fruit trees into a general proscription of needless destruction. (Known as the principle of bal tashchit, ‘Do not destroy,’ it is mentioned in the Talmud nine times.) Perhaps Menachem Recanati can take us still further in the direction of that environmental theology.

Recanati was an Italian kabbalist and Torah commentator. Little is known of his life, but family legend has it that he attained his mystical knowledge in miraculously quick fashion. Historically, he seems to have been responsible for bringing the ideas of the Spanish Kabbalah (the Zohar and the like) to the Italian Jewish community.  Here is what he has to say on our piece:

The meaning of not destroying the trees: You already know the saying of our rabbis of blessed memory, ‘There is no plant below that does not have a constellation appointed over it that strikes it and says “Grow!”’ [Bereshit Rabbah 10:6]. And so, when it is destroyed below, a defect is produced above. But if it is not bearing fruit, its power is already spent. You already know the saying of our rabbis of blessed memory, ‘[R. Hanina said:] My son Shikhat only died because he cut down a fig-tree before its time’ [Bava Batra 26a]. Hence it says, ‘Trees in the field are human’ [Deuteronomy 20:19]. And in the Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, our sages of blessed memory say, ‘When a fruit producing tree is cut down, a voice goes from one end of the world to the other, but the voice is not heard.’
(Menachem ben Benjamin Recanati (late 13th-early 14 centuries), Perush al HaTorah (Commentary on the Torah) (Jerusalem, 2003), pt. 5, pp. 67-68.)

Using the language of rabbinic literature, Recanati builds up an image of the kabbalistic ‘entanglement’ of trees, human beings, and the spiritual realms of the sefirot, the divine emanations. For Recanati, the quotation from midrash Bereshit Rabbah demonstrates the interrelationship between the vegetative and spiritual, because each blade of grass, each plant, has its controlling constellation in the heavens, in the spiritual worlds. Destroy the plant below, and its corresponding ‘constellation’ (he really means sefirah, ‘divine emanation’) is negatively affected.

The phrase from Deuteronomy 20:19 is usually understood as a question: ‘Are the trees of the field human?’ But clearly Rabbi Hanina understands it as a statement (‘Trees of the field are human’ – the Hebrew can bear either reading); hence, his verdict that the cause of his son’s death was his premature destruction of a fig tree. For Recanati, this illustrates the fact that the fate of humans and trees are totally intertwined.

I have been unable to trace the exact quotation from the Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, but it suggests that the cutting down of even one fruit tree has cosmic repercussions. Except that no one is listening!

For me, all of this points to one overwhelming conclusion: We are still not listening. We cannot lead spiritual lives without involving ourselves in efforts to save the environment in which we live. It is not simply that our lives will change (and are already beginning to change) irrevocably, not just that human life on earth may be under threat, our spiritual lives are, too. Even if the human species learns how to survive drastic climate change over the next century, the all-pervading materialism that drives our planetary home to possible destruction also threatens our very souls. Our whole lives seem to be taken up with consuming goods and discarding waste. Re-cycling is still in its infancy, and self-denial is discouraged. We are so embedded in this materialism and it in us, that we can hardly see our way out any more.

And yet a way out there must be, and I believe, is. It starts with understanding that every act we undertake in the world has environmental and spiritual consequences that we have to think and work hard to diminish the environmental impact and increase the spiritual impact. If each and every thing in the universe contains elements of divinity, as Recanati would have said, then each and everything is worthy of our respect and even love. Nothing and no one can be discarded as worthless.

It starts with a profound humility before the great and small things of creation, because, at the heart of the things, trees really are people!

Rabbi Larry Tabick ordained at Leo Baeck College 1976

Larry Tabick is rabbi of Shir Hayim – Hampstead Reform Jewish Community, lecturer in Kabbalah and Hasidism at the Leo Baeck College, and author of The Aura of Torah: A Kabbalistic-Hasidic Commentary to the Weekly Readings (JPS, 2014).

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.