Tending the Garden of Life?

“Is the environment a Jewish concern?” asks Rabbi Eric Lankin, chief of institutional advancement and education for the Jewish National Fund. “Under tikkun olam, we have an obligation and need to restore the broken world. We have an obligation to love all of God’s creatures. When we endanger something, we have to correct our ways. The environment is a topic of Jewish concern. Jewish people have been living these values for thousands of years.”[1]

While many Jews would agree with Rabbi Lankin that the environment is a topic of concern within the Jewish community, are we obligated to fix our broken world? And have we as a people been “living these values” as he purports? One’s answer has a lot has to do with one’s vantage point on creation itself.

God didn’t begin creation with a finished temple or cathedral where we might meet him. He created a growing thing, a garden where there would be seeds, shoots, roots, stems, flowers and more seeds to start the process all over again.

Adam, the first caretaker of the garden, was the only person around to train the plants, put them in order and enhance their growth. In return, they gave him their beauty as well as their food for his sustenance. He named the animals and enjoyed them and they provided a certain degree of company. Yet Adam needed the understanding that could only come from another person, and so God provided a mate for Adam in Eve, and together they tended the garden.

God arranged an ordered culture. He made grass to grow up and rain to come down. He made lovable animals like koala bears and unpleasant creatures such as fleas. He made man and woman and he put them in a place where they could cultivate their environment and be a part of the beauty of that garden by making a contribution to it.

God was the Grand Gardener to humanity and gave us the right to garden, cultivate and enculturate our own circle or sphere, which radiates from our families outward.

Unfortunately, the first couple did not follow the simple rules set up by the Creator. The book of Genesis relates the account of how they disobeyed God and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thereby destroying the ecological balance of their own souls. We call that garden fiasco “the fall.”

It has had a debilitating effect on our physical environment as well as on the souls of all of us who inhabit this planet. We have taken what God arranged and put it in disarray. We have made chaos out of what once was order.

Modern day examples abound.

We can see it in industrial disasters like the level 7 meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant complex in Japan; or in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mess of plastic (some say the size of the state of Texas) in the North Central Pacific Ocean that is spreading toxic chemicals and altering the ocean’s ecosystem; or in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in which 200 million gallons of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico.

Blogger Ryan Marshall was driving along the Florida panhandle about a month after the Gulf oil spill and stopped to chat with Fred, an elderly fisherman with a roadside stand at which he sold fish for $5 apiece. Marshall writes:

Around 1942 he started his first fish market; he has been doing this ever since. He worked alongside his wife for 35 years, raised children, and has an army of grandchildren to love… . I asked Fred if he was worried about the BP oil spill looming in the Gulf further north, and what it would mean for him if that oil made its way into these waters. He was quiet and broke our eye contact. At first I thought he just wasn’t going to answer me, and then he simply said, “Well, I guess it means that all of this is over, and BP will have to pay … .” For him there was no other solution to survive. He looked at me and said: “What else can I do?”[2]

Experts in the area of sustainability say:

  • Ninety percent of the world’s large fish have been eliminated from the world’s oceans. And more than half of all species could be severely endangered by the end of this century.[3]
  • According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 21,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. each year may be resulting from radioactive radon that is accidentally trapped in well-insulated homes.[4]
  • Our atmosphere’s ozone layer is being seriously depleted, threatening our health and retarding crop productivity because the increased ultraviolet rays are reaching the earth.[5]
  • The EPA has estimated that about 40 million Americans are exposed to drinking water lead concentrations that it considers to be a health risk.[6]
  • There are an estimated 250,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste that must be absolutely contained for 100,000 years so as not to damage the environment.[7]
  • The world’s global environmental “footprint” or depletion rate now exceeds the planet’s capacity to regenerate by 30 percent.[8]

While we can measure this kind of environmental havoc more easily today, environmental deterioration is not new. Our God-created universe has been altered by the created beings—us. All of our human instincts call out for self-fulfillment, self-protection and self-interest, and yet reversing today’s sustainability crisis demands self-discipline, self-denial and the determination to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.

The greatest threats to the environment are not depleted resources, global warming or overpopulation, but people who are self-centered rather than God-centered. Ours is a self-centered world in which we abuse not only our environment, but our greatest resource—other human beings. There is enough of everything to go around for those who see themselves as gardeners in God’s garden, entrusted with preserving what God has made. But there is not enough of everything for those motivated by greed.

When it comes to how we treat the environment and each other, we need a perspective beyond our own human wisdom. We need to see the earth as God sees it. As King David said, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it … ” (Psalm 24:1). It is God’s earth whose resources are being consumed at a frightening rate. While we were given the roles of gardener and cultivator here on earth, we have behaved instead as ravagers, consuming more of everything than is necessary or good for us. Unless we find a way of harvesting food on Mars for our world population and using fossil fuels from Venus, we are treating our planet in a way that says, “When things run out, like clean air and food, then that’s it.”

While there are no quick solutions or simple answers to the ecological mess we find ourselves in, there is reason to hope. To help unpack that, one contemporary Jewish thought leader, Rabbi David Gordis, points us to the Hebrew Scriptures:

Through narrative, poetry, law, and prayer, the Bible conditions its readers to feel reverence for nature, enjoins restraint in the exploitation of natural resources for human needs, elicits awe in response to the diversity and complexity of creation, and articulates the principle of human responsibility for faithful trusteeship over the natural world.[9]

But how does one become that person who is self-sacrificing instead of selfish? Jewish lore speaks of a time in the future when a Messiah will come and restore all things.

The coming of the Messiah is not fiction, but his example to us is one of selflessness and servanthood. Jesus, who walked the earth 2,000 years ago, said that he who manages to get along with the least on this earth will have the most in the kingdom of God. He was talking about the ecosystem of the soul.

Spiritual sustainability is concerned with avoiding the waste of people, the misuse of humanity. As much damage as we do to the structure, fabric and substance of the planet, we are doing even more damage to the body of humanity. That damage comes about through the toxic waste of sin. It is a spiritual smog which creates a haze that clouds the vision. When we can’t see clearly, we become unbalanced. We don’t notice danger signs down the road, so we proceed without taking the proper precautions. Those precautions involve a recognition of who we are, who God is and what is expected of us.

When we look at the spiritual state of our souls, we must come to grips with the reality of our defilement, that we have been polluted by sin, and say along with King David, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

David uttered that cry after he had sinned. That Hebrew word for create is bara, and it is used exclusively for the activity of God. If God could create a new heart in David, he can perform that spiritual operation on any of us.

God can create a pure heart in us so we can substitute self-interest for godly concern for all his creation! God can create a clean heart in each of us so that we can learn to do with less, to sacrifice, to deny ourselves, to share more, to provide for others, to truly be a responsible gardener, a cultivator and nourisher in the garden. The Yotzer Prayer for the Sabbath concludes with a messianic petition:

He is the Lord of wonders, who in His goodness reneweth the creation every day continually; as it is said, (O give thanks) to Him that maketh great lights, for His lovingkindness endureth (is sustainable) for ever. O cause a new light to shine upon Zion and may we all be worthy soon to enjoy its brightness. Blessed art thou, O Lord, Creator of the luminaries.

That new light is reflected in the person of Yeshua (Jesus). The New Testament portion of the Bible offers the promise of new beginnings for those who trust in him: “Therefore, if anyone is in Messiah, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Yeshua is the Constant Gardener, who sustains and cares for all who put their trust in him, and who will usher in a new heaven and a new earth[10] where we can live with him forever.


[1] Merri Rosenberg, “‘Going Green’ As Jewish Value,” The Jewish Week

[2] Ryan Marshall, “His Gulf of Mexico”

[3] Alliance for Global Conservation, “Why It Matters to You”

[4] United States Environmental Protection Agency, “A Citizen’s Guide to Radon”

[5] Restoring Eden, “American Baptist Policy Statement on Ecology”

[6] Drinking Water Research Foundation, “Lead and Drinking Water for Children”

[7] Duncan Geere, “Where Do You Put 250,000 Tonness of Nuclear Waste?”

[8] Global Footprint Network, “Footprint for Policy”

[9] David M. Gordis, “Ecology,” Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p. 1369.

[10] “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away …” (Revelation 21:1)