Author Archives: Yonatan Neril

Guard Yourselves Very Well

Evonne Marzouk & R Yonatan Neril /The Torah teaches us to choose life. The decisions we make must enhance our ability (and the ability of others) to live in this world as healthy physical and spiritual beings. The Sages throughout the generations internalized this concept very deeply both in the way they lived their own lives and in the way they guided others to live. In this article, we will explore the Jewish value of protecting our health, and how these lessons can guide us in our complex world, particularly in relation to one health challenge: our modern use of pesticides. The Jewish tradition places a strong value on being healthy. The Torah states, “Guard yourself and guard your soul very much” and “You shall guard yourselves very well.” What does the Torah mean when we are commanded to “guard ourselves” and to “guard our souls”? The Sages explain that these verses refer to the mitzvah (commandment) of protecting one’s physical health.

Read More »

Toward a Wiser Use of Energy

R Yonatan Neril / One of the most significant sustainability challenges of our time is how we produce, use, and relate to energy. Prior to the industrial revolution, the most important sources of energy for human uses were animals, people, wood, wind, and water. This changed with the invention of the steam turbine, internal combustion engine, and jet engine, and the use of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas and of nuclear power. While these technologies greatly increased material standards of living among human societies, they also have driven significant environmental changes which are beginning to have noticeable impacts worldwide, including climate change, the BP oil spill, and Japan’s nuclear crisis. What can we learn from the Jewish tradition about how to use energy responsibly? Use Energy Wisely The Jewish tradition teaches us to use energy wisely. In some cases, wasting energy is a violation of Bal Tashchit, the prohibition not to waste excessively. For example, the Talmudic Sage Mar Zutra stated, “One who covers an oil lamp [causing the flame to burn inefficiently] or uncovers a kerosene lamp [allowing the fuel to evaporate faster] violates the prohibition of Bal Tashchit.”

Read More »

Genesis and Human Stewardship of the Earth

R Yonatan Neril / The first two chapters of Genesis contain teachings with profound relevance for ourselves and our world today. In the first chapter of Genesis, twice in three verses, G-d speaks of humans ruling over other living beings. In the second instance, after creating Adam and Eve, G-d blesses them, saying “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” What does it mean for humans to subdue the earth and have dominion over other creatures?

Read More »

Water: Appreciating a Limited Resource

R Yonatan Neril / Human beings depend on a sufficient supply of high quality fresh water for their survival. Because of this essential dependence, Jewish sources equate water with life. By recognizing our dependence on water, and ultimately our dependence on G-d, we can strengthen our appreciation and protection of our precious natural resources, and our relationship with the Creator of the world. Even before the Israelites entered the land of Israel, water was central to their collective experience. In the desert, uncertainty about water resources inspired numerous complaints and lessons for the wandering Jews. The Talmud teaches that in the merit of Miriam’s song, a well appeared in the desert which accompanied the Jews wherever they went. G-d gave us this essential resource, without which we could not live for more than a few days, in the water-scarce desert. But the long-term security of the resource was never certain.

Read More »

The Spiritual Roots of the Environmental Crisis

R Yonatan Neril / In our times we are beginning to witness the planet’s ecological balance weakening due to human influence: rainforests shrinking, deserts expanding, forests burning, the planet heating. What is driving the deterioration of the natural world? To be sure, there are physical reasons, as well as deeper societal structures causing our environmental challenges. Yet to answer ‘fossil fuels’ or ‘wood use’ or even ‘consumerism’ would provide only partial answers. Beyond the physical causes, the environmental crisis conveys a deeper message. The widespread degradation of the natural world indicates that our way of life is out of balance. Thus the environmental crisis also reflects a spiritual crisis. Ecological disruptions reflect the inner imbalance within billions of human beings. The change required of us to correct this is, to a significant degree, of a spiritual nature.

Read More »

Countering Destruction: Lessons from Noah

R Yonatan Neril / The story of the flood teaches of an important connection between human action and planetary health. Ten generations after Creation, all life on the planet had “corrupted (hishchit) its way on the earth.” In response, G-d told Noah to build an ark to save species from the impending flood that would wipe out all terrestrial life. Noah built the ark, brought the animals into it, and lived on it for the duration of the flood. He then sent a raven and afterward a dove to see whether the floodwater had subsided. After Noah left the ark, G-d made a covenant with Noah, designating the rainbow as the sign of the Creator’s commitment not to destroy the world. Although the flood and the life of Noah occurred thousands of years ago, these stories offer relevant and profound lessons for the world in which we live. When we take a deeper look at Noah, seeing him through the eyes of some of the various rabbinic commentaries, we can discover a portrait of a man who spent his life innovating a lifestyle of what today would be called environmental concern. Noah lived in a generation of corruption (hashchata), the same root as the word for destruction (thus, the mitzvah of “Bal Tashchit”– do not destroy). The commentator Bet Yaakov notes that this “hashchata” (corruption or destruction) caused G-d to respond measure for measure with hashchata (destruction) of living beings. Noah, the one man who had not corrupted (hishchit) the world, worked to prevent the total destruction (hashchata) of human and animal life when he built the ark, the vessel that would preserve the planet’s animal life. A fresh look at the life of Noah can provide us many lessons as we strive to bring our world back to a state of holy balance.

Read More »

Slowing Down

What is the connection between the Jewish Sabbath and the environment? In modern society, we are running, speaking, and thinking at an exceptional rate, and oftentimes we continue all week long without slowing down. Constantly doing, always mobile accessible, habitually multi-tasking. We can get so caught up in the doing that we could spend our whole lives on the go. If being too busy is a malady of modern man, slowing down on Shabbat may be a key remedy. The Torah teaches, “These are the things that the Divine commanded to make. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to G-d…” [1] Achieving sanctity and complete rest is the stated goal of Shabbat. Yet how can this happen? One key source may provide instruction to help us find spirituality and uplift our relationship to the created world.

Read More »

Summoning the Will Not to Waste

R Yonatan Neril / The commandment of Bal Tashchit–do not destroy or waste–has long been considered central to a Jewish environmental ethic. Indeed, Rabbi Norman Lamm understands it to be “the biblical norm which most directly addresses itself to the ecological situation.”[2] What is the basis for the commandment not to waste? We will explore how the Jewish tradition widely forbids wasteful acts, how wasting contributes to degradation of the planet, and how not wasting can help us improve our lives both physically and spiritually.

Read More »

Trees, Torah, and Caring for the Earth

Dr Akiva Wolff and R Yonatan Neril / Tu b’Shevat, “the New Year of the Trees,” has become known as a day for raising Jewish-environmental awareness. That Tu B’Shvat has come to be associated with sensitivity to and appreciation of the natural environment is not by chance. Trees occupy a special place in Jewish thought. Their symbolic and practical importance is woven throughout traditional Jewish sources, helping us understand – and hopefully, improve – our relationship to G-d’s creation: our world.

Read More »