The Earth's Reward: Enjoy Its Fruit, but Protect Its Fruitfulness
The Torah teaches us to value human life -- as part of a sustainable world.
Concerning the commandment to send off the mother bird, contemporary farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry observes: “This [precept] obviously is a perfect paradigm of ecological and agricultural discipline... The inflexible rule is that the source must be preserved. You may take the young, but you must save the breeding stock.” In short, by all means eat of the fruit, but take care not to destroy the fruitfulness.
This is not only a contemporary exegesis. In the fifteenth century, [the Spanish] commentator Don Isaac Abrabanel stated: “The Torah’s intention is to prevent the possibility of untimely destruction and rather to encourage Creation to exist as fully as possible.” Therefore, “In order that you may fare well and live long” means that “it shall be good for humankind when Creation is perpetuated so that we will be able to partake of it again in the future... since if we are destined to live for many years on this earth, we are reliant upon Creation perpetuating itself.”
Readings Focused on Sustainability and Community Reconcile Competing Claims for Reward
Environmentalists call this “sustainability,” and it should be understood as creating a society that can both sustain itself, physically, over time (“length of days”) by not reaching, or breaching, the natural limits of the earth; and that can nourish its members spiritually (that they “fare well”). Our society is far from this ideal: for too long we have enjoyed the fruit, and paid no heed to preserving the fruitfulness. One imperative, then, for long and good lives here on the earth, for us collectively as a society, is treating the natural world with reverence and restraint.
The social-environmental reading of this mitzvah stands in stark contrast to the individualistic interpretations. The question of whether the commandment is for the sake of the animal or the human vanishes, because it ignores the long-term interdependency between us all. The expectation of instant material rewards, for me, now, has deep anti- environmental implications - it bespeaks short-term materialism without thought of long-term impact. Likewise, otherworldly spirituality usually denigrates this world and its physicality. The idea of inter-generational sustainability is a response to both.
The same sense of reward applies to the other two commandments that promise well being and length of days. Honoring our progenitors, that is, honors the idea of giving life and not just taking for ourselves. It rejects an inherently unsustainable throwaway culture in which even the elderly are disposable. And honest weights and measures, symbolic of fairness and equality, also represent a characteristic of a society that hopes to create well being for all its members and to endure over the long term.
We don’t just need an economy that can sustain itself, important and imperiled as that is; we need a moral and a spiritual life that can sustain and nourish us. This is the force of the promise in these mitzvot: not the long life of a single person, and not a pie-in-the-sky promise for bliss in the afterlife, but a life and a world of quality and meaning sustained for us and our children after us.
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