“Do not pollute the land on which you live.” Numbers 35:33
I wish I could say that these words were an ancient harbinger of our environmental concerns, an admonition against pollution. In fact, they aim at keeping the land in a state of holiness by requiting the blood of murder victims through executing the perpetrators.
However, it is ancient practice to lift the Torah’s words out of context, giving us the ability, and the license, to extend its meaning into realms that were not conceived of all those many years ago. So let’s consider pollution.
Our text continues: “ … for blood pollutes the land….” We are well aware, and have been for decades, that environmental damage caused by human beings has led to the death of many living things, from humans all the way through the plant and animal kingdoms. Pittsburgh’s own Rachel Carson was one of the first to alert the world to the scope of the problem.
Examples abound: Polar bears sinking through rotten ice too far from shore; coral colonies dying and bleaching; over-dependence on fossil fuels, leading to worldwide climatic change as greenhouse gases accumulate; migration of species into new areas, causing disruption to ecosystems; famine; not to mention runoff from manufacturing and mining, causing sometimes fatal illness to people, massive numbers of fish dying in rivers near Pittsburgh, and even the decay of Lake Erie.
Torah equates life with blood. (Genesis 9:4) In creating the conditions for so many creatures — that is, God’s creations — to die, we are in effect shedding their blood; and that blood pollutes the land.
That pollution makes our lives harder, narrower and arguably shorter. We are expiating the environmental sins we have committed.
There is nothing here that you were not already aware of. I bring this citation from this week’s sedra to strengthen, from Jewish tradition, the plea that we become more active in striving to halt pollution of the earth — the damage that we do, the hardships we cause, the blood we spill.
A famous midrash envisions God creating and destroying many universes before ours, arriving at last at the perfect creation. God adjures Adam and Eve to take good care of the earth, because there will be no one else to heal the damage they might do. In as much as Adam and Eve represent all humanity, this ancient parable was never more relevant.
There are many Jewish organizations dedicated to arresting and even undoing harm to the environment, all basing themselves on our tradition. I hope that you will find some of them and join in this effort.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)