Pikuah Nefesh: Saving Life

The threat of dangerous climate change forces us to confront the question: “What do we owe to our children and grandchildren?” Will we be able to claim that we have left them a better world than the one our parents and grandparents left for us?

Right now, it doesn’t look like it. Climate change, caused in large part by this generation’s wasteful and extravangant use of fossil fuels, threatens to bequeath a far less hospitable planet to our children. The great majority of climate scientists project a twenty first century world ravaged by more frequent and severe droughts and floods. 1 Food and water supplies will be stressed in many parts of the world. In Israel, projections are that climate change will lead to a 30% decline in rainfall by 2050, which would disastrously exacerbate our already critical water situation. 2

One of the obstacles to taking effective action against climate change has been a psychological and economic world view of instant gratification that discounts the future against the present. If someone offered you $100 today or the same amount (inflation adjusted) a year from now, we would almost all go for the money in the bank today. Economists generally assume a discounted utility rate of 6% per year. This means that I would have to offer you more than $106 a year for now to compete with the $100 today, or $200 ten years from now.

In other words, it is built into economic theory that it’s rational to care less about the future than we do about the present. This is posited even where our own welfare is at stake, let alone our descendants’. This assumption both reflects and exacerbates our indifference to future damage that our present actions may be causing.

The classic Jewish view is different. Judaism is a multi-generational project. In the Shema we declare the centrality of teaching Torah to our children. 3 The Talmud teaches, “Whoever teaches his son Torah, it is as if he had taught his children and children’s children until the end of all the generations.” 4 Jewish life is not just an effort to realise our values in our own lifetimes, important though that endeavour is. We are each a link in a chain that stretches from Sinai to the end of time. By transmitting our ideals and the life-patterns necessary to realize them onwards, we participate in the task of perfecting the world into the distant future. We are deeply invested in our descendants.

I am not aware of halakhic, legal sources that posit an obligation to conserve nature for the sake of future generations. The rabbis did not envisage a situation where our current rate of consumption could imperil the natural systems for supporting life in the future. But there are beautiful midrashic, non-legal texts that do address our issue.

The Torah writes, “when you come into the land and plant every tree…” (Leviticus 19:23.) On this, the Midrash comments,

“The Holy One said to Israel, “Even though you find the land full of good things, you shall not say:: Let us settle down and not plant…Just as you came in and found trees that others had planted, so you should plant for your children.”5

The midrash teaches that life is not sustainable unless we invest in long-term projects, such as tree-planting, whose benefits we may not live to see.

This point is deepened by a famous story about Honi the Circle Drawer. Although it is often quoted in Jewish environmental circles, the story’s literary subtlety repays closer study.

First a little background. The story we are about to read is immediately preceded by another well-known tale about Honi, which gave him his name. 6 Honi was renowned for his remarkable powers of prayer. Once, during a severe drought, the people sent to Honi and asked him to pray for rain. Honi drew a circle around himself and vowed not to step out if it until rain came, which it duely did. R. Shimon Ben Shetach, the head of the Sanhedrin had mixed feelings about Honi’s action. Though God clearly loved Honi very much, there was something childish about the impudence of demanding rain from God now. Honi was a great man, R. Shimon acknowledged, but excessively focused on immediate results.

Now to our story:

“All Honi’s days, he was bothered by the verse, “When God will return the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers.” 7 He said, “is it possible that one could sleep for seventy years in a single dream?”

One day he saw a man planting a carob tree. “How long does it take for that tree to bare fruit”, he asked.

“Seventy years”, the man replied.

“Are you sure you’ll live another seventy years?” asked Honi.

The man replied: “I found a world full of carob trees. Just as my forebears planted trees for me, so I will plant them for my children.”

Honi sat down and ate a sandwich.

(Note the imagery. Having just heard that some fruit trees can take seventy years to grow, Honi takes out some fast food for his lunch.)

Drowsiness overcame him and he fell asleep. An outcrop of rock rose around him. He became hidden from sight and slept for seventy years. When he woke up, he saw what appeared to be the same man picking some fruit from the carob tree.

“Are you the man who planted this tree?

“No, I’m his grandson”, the man replied.

Honi said to him, “it is clear that I have slept for seventy years.”

The environmentalist telling of the story usually ends there. Honi learns the lesson that the necessary nurturing of the natural world sometimes only yields fruit (literally in this case), after we ourselves have left the world. Therefore we must cherish and protect nature for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

This is a fine message as far as it goes. However, to appreciate the depths of the story we must read further:

Honi saw that his donkey had given birth to generations of off-spring. He returned home and asked, “Is the son of Honi the circle drawer still alive. They replied.

“His son is dead, but his grandson is alive.” He said to them:

“I am Honi the circle drawer.” They didn’t believe him. Then he went to the House of Study, where he heard the rabbis saying,

“Our teachings are as clear as they were in the days of Honi the Circle Drawer, for whenever he would come to the House of Study,he would answer all the difficulties that the rabbis had.” Honi said,

“I am he!” They didn’t believe him, and did not accord him due honour.

He became upset, prayed for divine mercy, and died. Rava said, this is an example of the saying: “Either friendship or death.”8 .

What Honi can’t quite grasp is that all of life’s key endeavors, planting trees, having a family, friendship, teaching Torah, raising generations of students; and, the trigger for the whole story, the redemption and return to Zion of the Jewish people, don’t happen all at once. They take time, sometimes longer than a lifetime.

Honi, like us, is master of the now. He desires, and even knows how to bring immediate results. But the most important investments we make in our lives don’t work like that. Certainly, the story teaches us that we must nurture and protect the natural world for our children’s sakes. But more than that, it is telling us that such long term environmental consciousness is necessary for fulfillment in all the most significant areas of life.

It is not just that by taking a longer term view we will save the world for our children. By saving the world for our children, we will loosen our obsession with consuming now and return to an understanding of what really matters.9

1 See summary of IPCC 2007 athttp://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science/ipcc-highlights2.html
2 See:http://www.foeme.org/docs/Factsheet_on_GW_impacts_on_Israel.pdf
3 Deuteronomy 6:7.
4 Kiddushin, 30a
5 Midrash Tanchuma Buber, 7:8.
6 Ta’anit 23a.
7 Psalms 126:1
8 Ta’anit 23a.
9 I benefited from learning this gemara with my chavruta Rabbi Josh Weisberg.