Ecology is a highly practical branch of science. Nothing could be more “down to earth” than preservation of the planet. Yet there is a facet of ecological awareness that is often overlooked. This is its spiritual dimension. When we act as self-absorbed individuals, with little regard for anyone or anything that exists outside ourselves, we immediately fall into moral and spiritual error. As the Yiddish saying goes, “A blind horse heads straight for the pit!”
Thus, countless laws in the Torah adjure us to open our eyes and act responsibly and compassionately toward the world around us. Among other ecological mandates, it promulgates the laws of bal tashchit (neither to destroy wantonly, nor waste resources unnecessarily); the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees surrounding an enemy city in wartime; the laws of covering excrement, and removing debris from public places; and so forth. In doing so, the Torah indicates that although we may feel at odds with nature, having to struggle to survive, in truth the world comprises a potentially harmonious whole, in which each element is precious.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1865–1935), Ashkenazic chief rabbi of pre-state Israel and a leading 20th-century thinker, expresses this idea compellingly: “If you are amazed at how it is possible to speak, hear, smell, touch, see, understand and feel—tell your soul that all living things collectively confer upon you the fullness of your experience. Not the least speck of existence is superfluous; everything is needed, and everything serves its purpose. ‘You’ are present within everything that is beneath you, and your being is bound up with all that transcends you.”
A spiritually attuned person will recognize that every creature is essentially bound up with every other creature, and that we share a collective destiny. Thus, our most fundamental attitude should be one of compassion, not acquisitiveness or aggression. This ethic applies toward all levels of creation. As master Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero of Safed (“RaMaK,” 1522–1570) adjures: “One’s compassion should extend to all creatures, and one should neither despise nor destroy them; for the Supernal Wisdom [i.e., the divine wisdom that brings all existence into being] extends to all of creation—the “silent” or mineral level, plants, animals and humans. This is why our sages have warned us against treating food disrespectfully. Just as the Supernal Wisdom despises nothing, since everything is produced there—as it is written, ‘You have formed them all with wisdom’ (Psalms 104:24)—a person should show compassion to all of the works of the Holy One, blessed be He.”
RaMaK’s words bespeak a G‑d-centered view of the universe, as opposed to one that is man-centered or nature-centered. In the words of the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, founder of Chassidism, 1698–1760), we must seek the welfare of all precisely because we are equally G‑d’s works, created to perform His will.
“Do not consider yourself superior to anyone else,” the founder of Chassidism states. “In truth, you are no different than any other creature, since all things were brought into being to serve G‑d. Just as G‑d bestows consciousness upon you, He bestows consciousness upon your fellow man. In what way is a human being superior to a worm? A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability; and man, too, is compared to a worm, as the verse states, ‘I am a worm and not a man’ (Psalms 22:7). If G‑d had not given you a human intellect, you would be able to serve Him only like a worm. In this sense, you are both equal in the eyes of Heaven. A person should consider himself, the worm and all creatures as friends in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are G‑d-given.”
This kinship of all creation and shared mission of serving G‑d, each creature in its own way, is often compared to a cosmic song. As we recite during the Sabbath prayers, “The soul of every living being shall bless Your Name . . . All hearts shall revere You, and every innermost part shall sing to Your Name.” Indeed, when the Talmud describes the mysteries of the maaseh merkavah (“workings of the [divine] chariot,” i.e., the mystical experience), it associates this prophetic wisdom with song. The sages relate how Rabbi Elazar ben Arach demonstrated his preparedness to engage in the study of these mysteries before his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan, at which point the trees of the field were encompassed by heavenly fire and broke into song, echoing the verses of Psalm 148: “Praise G‑d from the Earth, sea giants and all watery depths . . . mountains and hills, fruitful trees and all cedars . . . Praise G‑d!”
If we listen closely, this song still may be heard. Rabbi Aryeh Levin (the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem,” 1885–1969) told how he once was walking in the fields with his mentor, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. In the course of their Torah discussion, Rabbi Levin picked a flower. At this, Rav Kook remarked, “All my days I have been careful never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of our sages that not a single blade of grass grows here on Earth that does not have an angel above it, commanding it to grow. Every sprout and leaf says something meaningful, every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence—every creation sings its song.”
“These words of our great master,” Rabbi Levin concluded, “spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply in my heart. From that day on, I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for all things.”
So may it be for us who hear this story today and contemplate its perennial truth.