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The Parsha’s Perspective: Protecting our Planet

Ki Tisa

After the sin of the golden calf, where the Jewish people created an idol to serve in place of G-d, G-d’s anger flares up against the Jewish people. But Moshe reminds Him that He made a promise to the Patriarchs: “I will increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens, and this entire land of which I spoke, I shall give your offspring and it shall be their heritage forever” (Ex. 32:13, Artscroll Translation). G-d makes it clear that he entrusts the Jewish people to be caretakers of the land, and it is the peoples’ job to preserve this gift. However, He also recognizes that humans commit grave errors. Jews used the natural resource of gold, a beautiful gift humans were given, to try and serve an idol. This is an example of using the beauty of the natural world and corrupting it.

Thankfully, the Jewish people are forgiven. After listening to Moshe’s pleading, G-d offers the Jewish people a route through which they can receive mercy, even after they sin. However, G-d makes it clear that forgiving does not mean He forgets. He remembers the sins and errors after several generations, and they are not cleansed completely. In the context of the environment, if people disrespect the earth, their will be consequences for generations. For example, if people work their land during a shmita year (sabbatical year), the soil will become depleted over time, and crops won’t grow well. Although G-d will forgive people, their children will still suffer from the consequences of their parents’ poor choices.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explores the idea that sins are not completely cleansed in his article “Can there be Compassion without Justice”[if !supportFootnotes][1][endif]. He demonstrates that justice and compassion, as well as punishment and forgiveness go hand and hand. If only compassion existed, people would feel less accountable for their actions, because G-d would simply forgive all their wrongdoings.

Rabbi Sacks then brings in concepts from environmental ecology by discussing the tragedy of the commons, proposed by Garrett Harding.[if !supportFootnotes][2][endif] In Harding’s paper, he asks the readers to imagine a pasture or area of the sea with no owner. This area ends up attracting many people, and then over pasturing and overfishing occur. If all individuals thought about the common good, this wouldn’t occur. However, self-interest takes over the common good, and everyone suffers as a consequence.

However, G-d prevents individuals from acting in self interest by setting firm rules in place. By following the commandments of G-d, this helps prevent Jews from suffering from the tragedy of the commons. Jews know that although G-d will forgive them, He also has a stern sense of justice and punishment, so they should think twice about taking actions that could harm other individuals or the planet. As Rabbi Sacks puts it, “Those who believe in a punitive God cheat and steal less than those who believe in a forgiving G-d.[if !supportFootnotes][3][endif]” So, although we will be forgiven for disrespecting the earth through divine mercy, we should still be fearful of the consequences, and this will hopefully deter us from harming the envrionment. As this Torah portion states, G-d will not cleanse completely, and many generations will be affected by our current actions.

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[if !supportFootnotes][1][endif] Sacks, Jonathan. “Can There Be Compassion without Justice? (Ki Tissa, 5775).” Rabbi Sacks, 20 Mar. 2017.

[if !supportFootnotes][2][endif] Garrett Harding, “The tragedy of the commons,” Science 13 December 1968: Vol. 162 no. 3859 pp. 1243-1248.

[if !supportFootnotes][3][endif] Sacks, Jonathan. “Can There Be Compassion without Justice? (Ki Tissa, 5775).” Rabbi Sacks, 20 Mar. 2017.

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