The Parsha’s Perspective: Protecting our Planet. Parshat Vayakhel

This week’s Torah portion begins with Moshe (Moses) commanding the Jews to observe Shabbat (the Sabbath): “On six days work may be done, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest for G-d”.[1] Shabbat is a day of rest I have grown to appreciate more over the years. When I was younger, all I could think about were the prohibitions and restrictions. However, now I see this as a day of rest and being at peace. Shabbat is certainly one of the hardest commandments to keep, especially given the fast pace of the world around us, but it teaches us restraint. “By not doing any melacha (work) we suspend our creative interference in the natural order of the world.”[2]

 

Interestingly, the  melacha (work) doesn’t refer to the physical labor involved in a task, but instead the transformation of objects.[3] So, while certain types of cleaning are allowed on Shabbat, sewing is prohibited. Although the act of cleaning improves a place’s appearance, it does not have the ability to transform, while the act of sewing can transform cloth into a useful object. The point of the prohibition against productive work on Shabbat is to teach that such manipulation of the environment is not an inherent right of humans. Rabbi Hirsch, a German 19th century rabbi, expands on this idea.  He explains that “Shabbat was given to humanity in order that he should not grow arrogant in his dominion of God’s creation.” On Shabbat, “he must, as it were, return the borrowed world to its Divine Owner in order to realize that it is but lent to him.”[4] So, we must realize that we are one among many species on earth.

 

Although we don’t own the earth, we have been given a special role as guards of earth on Shabbat. Adam both works and guards the Garden of Eden, and commentators say that “work” refers to the six days of work, while “guard” refers the Sabbath.[5] We aren’t simply idle benefactors of a gift G-d had given us, but we are instead earth’s stewards.

 

The two types of care for the earth we have differ dramatically. Work during the week involves transforming, while guarding implies preserving. So, G-d recognizes that humans yearn to exert creative influence. We should not feel guilty about our desire to build. However, Shabbat reminds us that we need to balance our desire to create with our desire to protect. In order to guard, you must observe what is needed to be guarded without exerting influence or trying to change the surroundings. Shabbat makes us realize that the world goes on when we do not exert influence on it. We can learn about the balance of nature on Shabbat by observing it and soaking in its beauty, which will motivate us to work on protecting the earth during the week. The presence of Shabbat and the weekday can teach us there is a balance between creating and preserving. May we strive to appreciate the gifts from nature G-d has given us for generations to come, and continue to innovate, creating more beauty in this world.

 


[1] Exodus 35:2-3, Artscroll translation

[2] “Ecology in Jewish Law and Theology” in Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought, third augmented edn., Ktav Publishing House: Jersey City, New Jersey, 2006, p.163-4.

[3] Berman, Saul. “Israel Environment & Nature: Jewish Environmental Values - The Dynamic Tension Between Nature and Human Needs.” Jewish Virtual Library, 2018

[4] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, p. 30.

[5] Genesis Rabbah 16:5

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