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Genesis 1:11–12 – And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.”
And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: seed-bearing plants of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that this was good.As Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher) points out, God commanded the earth to produce “fruit trees that bear fruit,” meaning trees whose bark could be eaten as well as their fruit. However, he notes that the earth produced trees (whose bark is not eaten) that produce fruit in order that the trees themselves would not be devoured.49
Long ago, and today, we have come to understand that trees – in addition to the fruit they produce – have broader value including providing homes for animals large and small, and retaining soil to prevent erosion and catastrophic mudslides.
Genesis 15:5 – He took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He added, “So shall your offspring be.”
Why did God take Abraham outside? Ibn Ezra writes poetically of finding God, “Wherever I turn my eyes, around on earth or to the heavens, I see You in the field of stars, I see You in the yield of the land, in every breath and sound, a blade of grass, a simple flower, an echo of Your holy name.” 178
Elie Wiesel relates: When the Holy Seer of Lublin was a little boy, he was known to skip school for hours or even days. Once, his teacher followed the young boy to see what became of these free moments. The Seer walked to the edge of the town, into deep woods, and there, in a small, green circle of trees, he began to pray. The next day the teacher asked the boy what drew him to those woods. The Seer of Lublin replied, “I can find God there.” “But,” said the teacher, “surely God is the same in the town as in the woods.” “That’s true,” replied the Seer, “but I am not the same!”179
Genesis 18:4 – Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.
Rabbeinu Chananel asked why the angels revealed themselves to Abraham under a tree.181 He answered that in doing so they revealed a message to Abraham: “You, like a tree, will flourish even in your old age,” as it says in the book of Job, “For a tree has hope; if it is cut it will again renew itself, in its season. Its leaves do not wilt; and whatever it does prospers.”183
Abraham’s resilience and prosperity are compared to a tree. Indeed, trees are one of the most resilient organisms, specifically against drought. This is increasingly important in light of climate change causing unpredictable rainfall, extreme weather events, and stronger pests that threaten forests.184 Contemporary researchers have discovered that diverse “forests with trees that employ a high diversity of traits related to water use suffer less of an impact from drought.”185 They are also more resilient to forest fires.
Genesis 21:33 – [Abraham] planted a tamarisk [eshel] at Beersheba, and invoked there the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.
Malbim explains that the eshel was an orchard.205 The peace pact made with Abimelech, king of Gerar (today’s Gaza), is concluded with the planting of fruit trees, representing the importance of sustaining long-term and environmental prosperity for all, and demonstrating that true peace is based upon a joint hope for a better future. This is comparable to modern Israel and Jordan basing a 1994 peace pact on sharing water resources.206
From Eco Bible: Volume 1: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus. Copyright: 2020 The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development.
Genesis 19:25 – He annihilated those cities and the entire Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the ground.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) comments on the verse, “He [Abraham] saw the smoke of the land rising like the smoke of a kiln,”199 saying this was like the smoke rising from a kiln burning limestone to create lime used for bricks.200 Today, burning of tropical rainforests not only devastates the region where the burning occurs, but puts pollution in the air that is carried far beyond a nation’s borders. Burning of the environment is an international ecological threat.
Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiyahu ben Rabbi Mano’ach) explains why vegetation is also mentioned in this verse: It teaches that anyone who takes a handful of earth from Sodom, even to this day, and transfers it to a garden, will make the garden infertile.201
Today, scientists teach us, “When acid rain [from pollution] falls, it can affect forests as well as lakes and rivers. To grow, trees need healthy soil in which to develop. Acid rain is absorbed into the soil, making it more difficult for trees to survive.
As a result, trees are more susceptible to viruses, fungi and insect pests.”202 The acid rain effect is reversible with the addition of large quantities of alkaline lime to the soil. In Sweden, the cost of such treatment is over $50 million per year.203 This is an example of an “externality,” a cost of operating our cars and factories that is paid by taxpayers instead of by polluters. If such treatment costs were included in the costs of fossil fuels, according to some analysts, fuel prices would rise by up to 50 percent.204
“Almost as soon as I began reading, I knew that the Eco Bible would be a long term companion for me as I work to care for God’s creation and encourage other people of faith to do the same. Most communities of environmentalists I’ve encountered are heavily burdened by grim predictions of the future, which create an atmosphere of pessimism and disillusionment. What is unique to a Biblical perspective is hope, the “knowledge that we can choose; that we can learn from our mistakes and act differently next time.” The focus of environmentalism in the Eco Bible is completely different from a secular sense of hopelessness: here there is a spiritual conviction that we can and must turn from our destructive actions and live as we were created to: in peaceful, mutually beneficial flourishing with all that is.”
Yonatan Neril is a member of the Faith-Based Advisory Council of the UN Interagency Task Force and the advisory board of the Alliance For The Care Of Our Common Home: A Joint Initiative of the Pontifical Universities in Rome. Raised in California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a focus on global environmental issues, and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He currently lives with his wife, Shana and their two children in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Leo Dee received a Master’s in Engineering from Cambridge University, a Master’s in Public Health from Hebrew University, and rabbinical ordination in Israel. Following six years as a community Rabbi in the United Kingdom, he moved to Israel where he has worked in the Israeli financial community and within the field of Responsible Investment. He serves as director of programs at The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. He lives near Jerusalem with his wife, Lucy, and their children.
49. Tur Ha’Arokh on Genesis 1:11.
178. Abraham ibn Ezra, “God Everywhere” (1089–1164).
179. Jeremy Benstein, The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Vermont:
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006), 142, citing Elie Wiesel.
181. Rabbeinu Chananel on Genesis 18:4.
182. Job 14:7–9.
183. Psalms 1:3.
184. Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “Can Humans Help Trees Outrun Climate
Change?” The New York Times, April 25, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019
185. William R. L. Anderegg et al., “Hydraulic Diversity of Forests Regulates
Ecosystem Resilience during Drought,” Nature 561, no. 7724, September 2018,
199. Genesis 19:28.
200. Rashi on Genesis 19:28.
201. Chizkuni on Genesis 19:25.
202. “Impacts of Acid Rain on Soils,” Air Pollution UK, accessed May 16, 2019,
203. William K. Stevens, “To Treat the Attack of Acid Rain, Add Limestone to
Water and Wait,” The New York Times, January 31, 1989, https://www.nytimes
204. Jean Tirole, “Some Economics of Global Warming,” Rivista di Politica
Economica 98, no. 6, November 2008, 9–42.
205. Malbim on Genesis 21:33.
206. “Article 6” in “Treaty of Peace between the State of Israel and the Hashemite
Kingdom of Jordan,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 26, 1994,
https:// mfa.gov.il/mfa/foreignpolicy/peace/guide/pages/israel-jordan%20peace %20treaty.aspx.