Last week, over a hundred world leaders met in Paris to discuss climate change. Climate change or global warming refers to the theory that the world is getting warmer. This could have disastrous effects like irregular weather patterns and flooding. One possible cause of this change of temperature is greenhouse gasses caused by the burning of fossil fuels by industrialized countries. While the theory of global warming is still debated in scientific circles, in this article we will explore the perspective of Torah sources about our relationship with our planet and its resources.
Adom HaRishon’s Mandate
The Midrash writes (Koheles Rabbah 7:13) that when Hashem created Adom HaRishon He showed him all the beautiful trees of the garden of Eden and instructed him “Observe how beautiful my creations are. All that I created is for you. Be careful not to destroy my world because if you destroy it no one will come after you and fix it.” What does the Midrash mean when it instructs Adom not to destroy the world? Is it referring to spiritual destruction by sinning? Or is it referring to physically destroying the world?
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzato in his famous Mesilas Yesharim quotes this Midrash as a spiritual instruction to mankind. If man elevates himself, the world will become elevated with him and if he does the opposite, it will bring destruction to the world. In the same vein the Torah attributes the flood in the days of Noach as a punishment for the immoral conduct of the generation. Similarly, the Talmud in Kiddushin writes that every good or bad deed a person does affects the entire world. Nonetheless, classic Torah sources view respecting and preserving the physical world as an important value as well.
Ba’al Tashchis & Shiluach HaKein
The Sefer Hachinuch (529) gives a fascinating philosophical perspective on the mitzvah of ba’al tashchis, the prohibition to destroy a fruit tree. He writes “This mitzvah teaches us to love the good and productive and to distance ourselves from all forms of destruction. The great and pious individuals loved peace and saw the positive in people and brought them close to Torah. They would not destroy even a single mustard seed and were bothered by any form of destruction and tried to prevent it. The opposite is the way of evil individuals who rejoice in the destruction of the world.” The words of the Chiunuch are poignant. We should care about our world. Caring about the spiritual and physical wellbeing of humanity goes hand in hand.
Another fascinating dimension to this discussion is a philosophical reason given by the Rambanto the mitzvah of Shiluach Hakein (Devarim 22:6), sending away the mother bird. He writes that while the Torah permitted slaughtering a bird, it did not permit causing the species to become extinct. Therefore, the Torah did not allow us to take both the mother and the offspring. Rather, the mother should be sent away to continue the species. Only then is it permitted to take the offspring. We can learn from here a similar concept. We are permitted to use the world but not destroy it. Therefore, we must avoid actions that causing irreversible destruction to the world.
While the previously mentioned concepts are more philosophical, the concept of Yishuv HaOlam, literally ‘settling the world’ is often used in a halachic context. If usually refers to practices which benefit society as a whole. For example, the Talmud writes that a gambler is disqualified from being a witness because he is not involved in yishuv haolam. Earning a decent living in a constructive way benefits society. The tailor provides clothing and the farmer provides food. However, a gambler doesn’t earn a livelihood in a constructive way and cannot be trusted. For this reason, halachic sources in general discourage gambling even when it may not be technically forbidden. Our financial dealings should not only benefit ourselves, but society as a whole.
We find the concept of yishuv haolam mentioned in other contexts as well. The Rambam writes that Bais Din may punish murderers even without sufficient testimony because of yishuv haolam. This means that for the betterment of society we may overlook the normal judicial process. Similarly, the Ritvah (Shu”t HaRitvah 131) writes that it is the obligation of the communal leaders to fix the roads and make sure they are safe.
Moreover, according to halacha a person whose tree’s roots are causing damage to a neighbor is not obligated to cut it down if it was there first. One of the reasons given, by the Ramban (cited in Rivosh 322), is because having trees is yishuv haolam, settling the world. Apparently, having trees is a significant benefit to society. This benefit is important enough to allow the tree to grow even if its roots cause damage to a neighbor.
It is too early to tell how reliable the scientific findings about climate change are. Nonetheless, it is certainly possible that mankind’s use of fossil fuels is having a negative impact on our world. As Torah Jews we care deeply about our world. We believe every mitzvah has a positive impact on the world. This broad view extends to the physical treatment of the world as well. As the mitzvos of ba’al tashichis and shiluach hakein teach us, we are sensitive to all forms of destruction, spiritual or physical and must conduct ourselves in a way that promotes yishuv haolam.