In our Torah portion, Lech Lecha, Avram, having arrived in Canaan, goes down to Egypt. He then leaves Egypt a wealthy man with his household, including many cattle and other animals. He journeyed with his nephew, Lot, who also had a large household. Strife occurred between them and their households, as there simply were not enough resources to sustain their families along with all of their animals.
The reality was that the area they settled in already housed the Canaanites and the Perizzites, so between them and Avram and Lot’s needs, there wasn’t enough grazing land and water to sustain all of them. Avram, magnanimous as always, offered Lot whatever area he preferred. As he said: “Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.” Lot, when he saw how lush the Jordan plain was, chose to go in that direction. In the Torah, this serves as an introduction to the unfortunate events of Sodom and Gomorrah. But I want to approach this topic from the perspective of diminishing returns. As Avram wisely realized, the land could only support so much. When there was so much land available, they could then split up and each live in an area of land that could sustain them.
Unfortunately, we have gotten to the point where the land can no longer sustain all of us at our current rate of consumption. Largely due to habitat depletion as a result of developing so many of our wildlands, 23 species were recently declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We rarely see monarch butterflies anymore and there are few places on this planet still untouched by humankind. There are no more places for us to split up and spread out as Avram and Lot did in order to have enough resources. Indeed, many of the resources that we depend on for energy and transportation are set to run out soon. At our current rate of use, our coal reserves are predicted to run out in 2169, oil by 2066, and natural gas by 2068. We are running out of time to change our ways with regard to resource depletion, not to mention the changes we are causing to our climate.
Avram shows faith in God. For this, God rewards him with the promise of land. How do we show our faith in God when it comes to our ever-depleting sources of land? One way is through the observance of the shmittah or sabbatical year, which happens to be this Jewish year, 5782.
Every seven years, we are required to let the land lie fallow in the land of Israel. This seven year cycle reminds us that the land doesn’t belong to us, rather it belongs to God. We are mere stewards, but need to take that duty seriously by following good agricultural practices like not over farming the land. It, like, us needs a rest.
So, with the reminder that we must be conscious of responsibly using our resources as Avram and Lot did, and shmittah’s message that the earth doesn’t belong to us, we must address what we can do in our day and age to face these issues.
For one, for those of us who are fortunate enough to own houses with land, we can help provide habitats for insects and animals by planting native plants, not mowing and/or raking all or some of our lawn (even allowing one corner of our lawn to grow wild can help provide habitat), and not applying pesticides and herbicides. We can work on lessening our carbon footprints by driving less, buying local foods whenever possible, and/or growing our own food. We can start with something as simple as growing some thyme in a pot to begin to lessen the impact of our food getting to us. Further, we can get involved in organizations focused on fighting climate change like Dayenu.
It is our responsibility to model ourselves on our ancestors and recognize our limited resources and the fact that the land doesn’t truly belong to us. We must do the work to responsibly care for the earth for God and for future generations. Let us take this shmittah year to find new ways to care for God’s earth. In doing so, we will help create a better tomorrow for ourselves and future generations.
Rabbi Miriam Lichtenfeld is an experienced educator who has run supplementary programs, taught in day school and camps. She teaches at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies and is an educational consultant for BBYO.