Tisha b’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av), which we commemorate this year on July 21-22, reminds us that more than 2,000 years ago Jews failed to heed the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah, with the result that the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the first of many negative things that occurred on that day in history, including the destruction of the second Temple as well.
Today it is not a Jeremiah or other prophet but thousands of climate scientists and other environmental experts warning us that it is not just Jerusalem but the entire world that is threatened by climate change and its effects, species extinction, soil erosion, destruction of tropical rain forests and other valuable habitats, and many other environmental dangers. For example, as long ago as 1992, over 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including 104 Nobel Laureates, signed a “World Scientists Warning to Humanity,” stating that ‘human beings and the natural world are on a collision course,” and that “a great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” More recently, some climate scientists are warning that we may soon reach a tipping point when climate change will spin out of control with disastrous consequences if major changes do not soon occur.
On Tisha b’Av, Jews fast to express their sadness over the destruction of the two Temples and to awaken us to how hungry people feel. So severe are the effects of starvation that the Book of Lamentations (4:10), which is read on Tisha b’Av, states that “More fortunate were the victims of the sword than the victims of famine, for they pine away stricken, lacking the fruits of the field.” Yet, today over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as an estimated 20 million people worldwide die annually because of hunger and its effects and about 10% of the world’s people are chronically hungry.
Jewish sages connected the word ‘eichah’ (alas! what has befallen us?) that begins Lamentations and a word that has the same root ‘ayekah’ (‘Where art thou?’), the question addressed by God to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps failure to properly hear and respond to ‘ayekah’ in terms of stating ‘Hineini’ – here I am, ready to carry out God’s commandments so that the world will be better – causes us to eventually have to say and hear ‘eichah.’
The reading of the Book of Lamentations on Tisha b’Av is meant to wake up the Jewish people to the need to return to God’s ways, by showing the horrors that resulted when God’s teachings were ignored. The readings on Tisha b’Av help to sensitize us so that we will hear the cries of lament and change our ways. Rabbi Yochanan stated “Jerusalem was destroyed because the residents limited their actions to the letter of the law of the Torah, and did not perform actions that would have gone beyond the letter of the law” (‘lifnim meshurat hadin’) (Baba Metzia 30b). In this time of factory farming, climate change and other environmental threats, widespread hunger, and widespread chronic degenerative diseases, perhaps it is necessary that Jews go beyond the strict letter of the law in efforts to prevent further environmental degradation.
This Tisha b’Av, I hope that we will begin to heed its basic lesson that failure to respond to proper admonitions can lead to catastrophe. The Jewish people must make tikkun olam (the repair and healing of the planet) a major focus in Jewish life today, and consider personal and societal changes that will improve the environment. By doing this, we would be performing a great Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s Name) by working to meet our mandate to be a ‘light unto the nations.’ (Isaiah 49: 6)
All of us can and must contribute to this new stewardship, even with modest changes to our lifestyle. In 1999, the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote: “Just as we don’t claim that people need to stop driving their cars completely, we don’t argue that they need to stop eating meat entirely. But reductions in both areas – driving and meat consumption – will certainly benefit the environment.”
In view of the many threats to humanity today, I hope that Jews will enhance their commemoration of the solemn but spiritually meaningful holiday of Tisha b’Av by making it a time to begin striving even harder to live up to Judaism’s highest moral values and teachings. One important way to do this is by applying Jewish values in efforts to shift our precious, but imperiled, planet onto a more sustainable path.
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island, is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Mathematics and Global Survival, and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet.