A Modern Spiritual Earth Day Interpretation

As Earth Day approaches, we must ask ourselves: Have we been good stewards of the land?

Professor Arnold M. Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary perceives this parsha as the Biblical-era “way for the community to set itself right with God and one another.” Eisen references medieval commentator Nahmanides: “The deeds of the ancestors are a sign for their descendants.”

His words strike me as analogous to the Great Law of the Iroquois: “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation … even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine” (the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations). The Iroquois’ concern for the legacy we leave the next seven generations has become a standard reference in the environmental lexicon. Nahmanides said as much back in the 13th century, but until now, readers interpreted themselves solely as the descendants.

How are we as guilty as Aaron — or worse? After his sons died introducing unbidden alien fire, Aaron and the Israelites were tasked with penance involving purification and sacrifice. They were en route to the Promised Land, a blessed gift for which some rabbis suggest we were not yet worthy.

How can we see the 20th century’s return of Israel to the Jewish people (after an equally unfathomable 2,000-year exile) as anything less than a modern-day miracle of God, a second best-ever case of re-gifting, of which we must prove ourselves worthy? And yet, the most ardent pro-
Israel dialog today is politically driven, without a thought accorded the sacred land itself.

We, the Jewish people, have cast the land aside and long reneged in our obligations to her. With air pollution in the Holy City hovering at crisis levels, the shocking toxicity of rivers and streams, Biblical species disappearing from the landscape, and the land itself congenially handed over for new experimental fracking methods, the American Jewish media kick back and let Israeli environmentalists know that if it doesn’t involve “the conflict,” it’s neither newsworthy nor of interest to Western Jewry.

We must acknowledge the exponential rate at which we have wronged and harmed the land of milk and honey.

As Earth Day approaches, Kedoshim teaches us how to observe Yom Kippur. We accept our need to atone, not just one day, but all year long and every year — and we are eminently capable of this growth. It is an essential part of our tradition and habit, and I believe this is part of what makes the Jewish people great. All we need now is to direct that same aptitude for purification and sacrifice toward stewardship of the land.

We, the Jewish people, could usher in a new era of spiritual devotion to stewardship of all creation. This is the exciting stuff that our tradition offers — and if we do so, what a legacy we will leave for our descendants.
Michelle Levine, outreach director for the American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, has spent almost a decade in Israel researching nature and environment in Israel and has an M.A. in American Indian Studies. She will be presenting a history of environmental victories in Israel at Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C. on April 19, at Adat Shalom in Bethesda on April 20, and at Limmud Baltimore on April 21. For more information, visit limmudbaltimore.org.