Parashat Korah

Consumption & Kedushah

We must differentiate between our wants and our needs.

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The Torah tells us that the earth swallowed up "all the people of Korah and all their possessions." Our sages wonder, why were the possessions mentioned here explicitly? They explain that Korah was a very wealthy man and that this wealth caused the arrogance that brought him down. Wealth is an important tool in human hands enabling us to fulfill our task more effectively. But, if not used properly, it can cause our downfall--and even destroy the world.

The kedushah concept is central, not only to Judaism, but to environmental preservation as well. Specifically, the kedushah concept can be the key issue for problems caused by our habits of over-consumption, which defeat our attempts to achieve sustainability.

Sustainability & Kedushah

Early considerations of sustainability pinpointed unchecked population growth as the greatest threat to the world's sustained survival. The rate of growth of world populations, they argued, could not be matched by increases in food production.

More recent research has found that a factor of considerably greater importance is the average individual consumption, which is increasing at a much faster rate than that of population growth. In the course of thirty years, the world's population doubled, while energy consumption per capita increased eightfold in this period. We may add to this the fact that in North America and Western Europe, ten percent of the world's population consumes fifty percent of its energy.

The danger to the world posed by excessive consumption is serious. Not only does it deplete the world's energy store, it also is the chief cause of the warming of the atmosphere, through excessive burning of fossil fuels. In other words, the excessively high standard of living in some parts of the world is a major source of today's ecological crisis.

This over-consumption is also manifest in our use of raw materials. It can even be found in our dietary habits. Note that the production of one kilogram of beef consumes 16 kilograms of grain. Present efforts to stem the tide of over-consumption focus mainly on legislation to impose restraints on the public. But this approach has very limited effectiveness. Auxiliary propaganda drives to recruit public support, too, are largely ineffectual, because they lack a rational basis. The spirit of "After us the deluge!" is difficult to overcome.

Wants & Needs

All this shows that the root of the problem originates in a selfish world view which inflates personal consumption beyond the essential. Regarding this problem, the Torah instructs us to "be kadosh,"  in other words, to refrain from self-indulgence and luxuries. To appreciate the significance of this commandment, let us, for a moment, take a global view.

The world, with all its myriad components, was put at humankind's disposal to use and enjoy as we see fit. Without any restrictions, this would quickly lead to total disaster. Accordingly, the Torah provides some detailed guidelines, such as the requirement to respect property rights, marriage regulations, etc. But above all these, the key directive is the commandment: "You shall be kadosh" It instructs us to take from the world that which we need to do efficiently our job of running the world in accordance with the will of its Creator--but no more.

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Rabbi Yehudah Levi is a former Rector, head of the Physics/Electro-optics Department of the Jerusalem College of Technology, and has been a President of the American Orthodox Jewish Scientists both in the USA and Israel.