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PAST: Cultivating Sensitivity

PAST: Cultivating Sensitivity

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 Bamidbar: Ecology By Divine Design
If you owned a small forest in a suburban community, should anyone have the right to tell you that you cannot chop down your trees, pave over your grass, and put up yet another strip mall on your property? What is your attitude to the living or life-giving things that you no longer need personally, but which might be of use or meaning to others? And more importantly, what does the Torah say about our ecological responsibilities

This year, Chumash Bamidbar commences alongside the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving the Torah. Each week, we’ll visit diff erent areas of Jewish law, ethics, philosophy and mysticism that relate to our relationship with the natural environment, and discover Torah’s eternal lessons of environmental sensitivity. In today’s class, we’ll be discussing the general prohibition of cutting down fruit trees, which provides the fundamental principle of the Torah’s approach to the environment.

Naso: Make the Most of Nature
What’s most important when you are buying a gift for someone you love? Is it important to purchase the most expensive item within your budget? Or is it more important that the gift demonstrates that you know exactly what your beloved wants without them having to tell you?

In this week’s class we’ll be discussing the final gifts to the Mishkan, which were given by the Nesi’im, the tribal leaders, just prior to the Mishkan’s inauguration. These final gifts seemed frugal, even stingy, given the wealth of these leaders, and the much larger and more expensive gifts that were given by the people as a whole. Consistent with our ecological themes, we’ll fi nd that bigger does not always mean better, that larger does not necessarily mean greater. The whole world is a gift to us from HaShem, and all of our behavior in this gift of a world ought to be a gift from us to HaShem, not only as a collective society but each of us as an individual. We’ll see why a key to a perfect gift is the absence of waste. A perfectly measured gift fully uses our resources, whether spiritual or natural, in thoughtful and G‑dly ways.

Behaalotecha: Finitely Infinite Resources
Today more than ever, our lives depend on energy, which in turn relies heavily on imported foreign oil. Is it possible for the world to run out of natural resources because of our wastefulness? In a world that is continuously being created by a loving Creator, do we need to worry about the host of issues raised by environmentalists? Is it possible for the world to run out of natural resources because of our wastefulness? What are our alternatives? Does Torah advocate alternative energy?

In this week’s class we’ll be studying how Moshe searches for means to sustain an ever growing Jewish population in a desolate desert. The quails provided to us in addition to the supernatural manna during our wanderings in the wilderness are the G‑dly answer. Through the quails, we’ll encounter some core issues in Chassidic thought that bears directly on our impact on the enironment: Understanding nature not as a static but rather a vibrant entity as it is truly another form of G‑dly manifestation. The relationship between HaShem and Nature brings to realization the infinite-like resources buried in nature, which naturally propels the human being to continued research and exploration for new alternative sources of energy.

Shelach: The Comfort of Constant Miracles
How much do doomsday scenarios about the environment concern you? Are you afraid that the world can come to an end as a result of our actions? Or that we cannot possibly survive the consequences of the collective actions that may be poisoning our air, water and food supplies? Can any species, created from absolute nothingness by G‑d, become extinct as a result of human apathy and greed? Can biotechnologists accidentally create a virus that might wipe out humanity? Is global warming a real threat? Nothing sells more newspapers, or glues us more fi rmly to our news channels and internet sites than warnings of imminent, catastrophic danger. Fears for our physical survival in unfriendly or unsafe environments have always been a key driver of human behavior, and people throughout history have been all too ready to quickly respond to those who spread rumors of impending disaster.

In this week’s class we’ll be discussing the reports of the spies who were sent to evaluate the Land that HaShem had promised us. Why were their warnings so dire, and so universally accepted as fact? In today’s class we’ll learn why at the end of the day, the Jewish people must and will survive. The very core of existence will remain unchanged for as long as G‑d destines the world to be, no matter what we do. To be sure, while our actions can contribute to environmental decay there will always be HaShem’s infi nite power that is beyond the world, a force that will continue to take hold in the world at every moment.

Korach: Faithful Stewards
Is dominance over nature necessarily a bad thing? Where would we be if we could not dominate it? What if we were never able to turn a wild jungle into fi elds and gardens? What if we could not make the desert bloom, or subdue carnivorous beasts? Our dominance over nature, built into our very psyches, can and has been channeled in very positive and holy ways. But what are the limits of dominance, and most urgently, what is the relationship between dominance and responsibility? Just because you are capable of dominating something, does that give you the right to do whatever you want to it? Do animals have rights? What about vegetables and minerals? What are your responsibilities, if any, to your string beans? This is actually a very serious, important question that goes to the heart of HaShem’s purpose for Man and nature alike.

In today’s class we’ll be exploring dominance, from its holy and unholy aspects, by seeing how Korach’s rebellion against the concept of a hereditary priesthood of which he was not a part, was all about different interpretations of dominance, responsibilities and rights. We’ll see why the main purpose of our being granted dominance over every other species is so that we should be faithful stewards and caretakers over every aspect of life and nature. This type of dominance should most certainly positively affect our approach to ecology and environment.

Chukat: It's a Wonderful World
Is anything good happening around the world? Assuming that you consume the news like the rest of us do, can you name something beautiful and positive that happened in a foreign nation over the last week? How about naming three events that took place overseas over the last month that demonstrated man’s capacity for true holiness and G‑dliness? Is it the fault of the media that more good news is not reported, or is it the fault of readers who think that good news is no news, or is it the fault of average people and their leaders who just don’t do enough good in the first place? Th e world can often appear to be a dark and dismal place, filled with conflict, corruption, violence and fear, and the Torah does not pretend otherwise. But the Torah also assures us that the true colors of the world are of the ultimate beauty of life, and the inherent goodness in all of us.

In this week’s class we’ll be focusing on songs of praise that we sing to HaShem, from the song at the well of Miriam that is referred to in this week’s parshah, to Perek Shira, the deeply moving and mystical songs of praise that all of creation sings to HaShem. We’ll see how our appreciation of and gratitude for the goodness and beauty in life which inexorably contribute to positive environmental sensitivity, stem from both the overt miracles that HaShem has performed for our people, the hidden miracles that HaShem does for us every day, and the essentially miraculous qualities inherent in Nature and life as a whole.

Balak: Labor With Love
Have you ever wondered what life would be like if it was one endless holiday? Wouldn’t you be happier if you did not have to struggle for your livelihood? Wouldn’t it also be better for the environment if HaShem just gave us everything that we needed? Wouldn’t a world free of hazardous emissions, chemical waste dumps, or workplace injuries be the ultimate paradise?

In this week’s class we’ll be examining both why, spiritually speaking, we inherently desire not to be presented with our needs on a golden platter but rather we seek to earn a living on our own, as well as how we should earn that living. We’ll focus first on Bilaam’s statement in this week’s Torah portion that HaShem “does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel.” As is the case today, most of the Jewish people throughout history spent most of their days, and many of their nights at work. “Six days you will labor, and on the seventh day you must rest” is considered by many as not only a negative commandment to refrain from work on Shabbat, but as a positive commandment to work every other day of the week. Bilaam’s blessing that HaShem should see no evil means in great part that we must demonstrate goodness and purpose in all of our work, and that we should be ever-mindful of the consequences and impact of our work in the world. Discover the immense spiritual satisfaction from all types of work, and the next time you step in to your workplace, expect to feel a new sense of fulfi llment.

Pinchas: Cloud Seeding
There is much that we can do physically to make the world a more habitable place, but what are the spiritual means at our disposal for positively eff ecting the environment? Are there any special ecological mitzvot that directly impact the environment?

In this week’s Torah studies class we will explore the spiritual stimulants implicit within certain mitzvot and customs, and the dramatic effect they can have on our physical environment. Parshat Pinchas discusses one mitzvah in particular that has special environmental importance. With great festivity, amidst singing and dancing, water was brought into the Temple and offered on the altar during the holiday of Sukkot. This ceremony is the root for today’s custom of dancing through the night at the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah—literally “the joy at the drawing of the water.” This mitzvah is closely connected with blessing for the perfect rain patterns. Indeed, the perfect balance is needed to sustain life of every kind. Although we no longer have the physical Beit HaMikdash, the spiritual aspect of the Temple’s services, including that of the water libations, are still relevant and eff ective by virtue of their spiritual practice.

Matot-Maasei: The Countryside Metropolitan
Does the countryside have any special appeal for you? Wouldn’t you like to live in a relaxed atmosphere filled with gardens and flowers? And if urban steel and concrete have a certain charm for you, would you at least like to vacation somewhere more idyllic? What does the Torah have to say about the countryside?

In this week’s class we’ll fi nd that the Torah’s proposition for cities is one that takes into account the best of both worlds. Thus Torah provides us with clear guidelines with regard to proper zoning for achieving the best quality of life and create a beautiful metropolis setting. We learn in this week’s parshah that the Levites should be given a small portion of land to live in. But alongside that commandment, the Torah dictates clear zoning rules. We will begin exploring a very basic perspective, continue through the halachic point of view and conclude with the Chassidic perspective. The most important lesson to be learned is that we can best live in a metropolis while still retaining our countryside spirit. 


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