A Jewish view on ‘Nature Deficit Disorder'

Leading rabbis for millennia have stressed the importance of being in nature as part and parcel of spiritual practice.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
I GREW up in a home with an organic garden that I tended with my mother. However, in common with so many others, I moved from these natural surroundings to living in a city, and from spending time in the presence of trees and animals to sitting in front of a computer screen.
In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the gentile prophet Balaam blesses the Jewish people and compares their camp to scenes from nature: “Like the winding brooks, like gardens by the river’s side, like aloes which the Lord has planted, and cedar trees beside the waters.” (Num. 24:6) Ilana Stein, a lecturer on Torah and ecology, explains that “this verse contains a repeated image of two kinds of biome or ecozone: desert with aloes and a river that flows only rarely, and a more temperate zone with a perennial river and cedar trees. The Israelites knew the desert environment intimately, as well as the power of the Nile River to create ‘gardens’ on its banks. Later generations lived in Israel where both biomes are well-represented.”
Leading rabbis for millennia have stressed the importance of being in nature as part and parcel of spiritual practice. Human beings, as creatures of the earth (Adam in Hebrew), by their nature thrive on connection to the earth (adama). The great Biblical prophets infused their writings with metaphors drawn from nature, based on their own experiences in the natural world.
Psalm 148, replete with nature imagery, is considered by the rabbis to be an important example of this. Rabbi Avraham Kook derived from this the proposition, “in every place that a person looks at heaven and earth, that person sees the glory of the Creator and the beauty of His creation.” The nineteenth century hassidic rabbi, the Sefat Emet, said, “Nature and miracles are one, and in truth there is no miracle greater and more wonderful as nature, which is the greatest of wonders conceivable to us.”
For this reason, “the rabbis breathed and felt, thought and lived in God’s marvelous nature,” as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote. “How they wanted to awaken our senses for all that is sublime and beautiful in Creation. How they wanted to demonstrate to us that every creature was a preacher of His power… What a Divine revelation they made of the book of nature.”
Furthermore, Rabbi Yitzhak Breitowitz, senior lecturer at Yeshivat Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, teaches based on the Talmud that “there is an intimate bridge between the physical structure of the universe and the spiritual universe.” Because of this, experiencing nature’s beauty is key to spiritual awareness. Maimonides wrote, “What is the way to love and fear God? When a person contemplates his wondrous and great works and creations, and he sees in them His infinite wisdom, immediately he loves and praises and exalts and yearns, with an overwhelming yearning, to know His great Name.”
The use of nature metaphors is widespread in the works of the Kabbalists of medieval Spain as well. These Kabbalists “certainly felt that the most proper setting for Torah study was outdoors, especially in a garden or a grove of trees,” as Professor of Jewish Thought Rabbi Arthur Green writes.
Yet urban, technological living disconnects us from the natural world: many people spend more time in the online world than in the natural world. The first thing many people see in the morning is the LED screen of their smartphone. Most city-dwellers do not frequent flourishing and fascinating nature areas that exist nearby. This divorce from nature underpins much of environmental degradation. Humanity is radically altering the natural world because much of it is not connected to the natural world.
As Rabbi Daniel Kohn, lecturer at Jerusalem’s Sulam Yaakov yeshiva, notes, “The more disconnected we become from nature, the more callous we become toward it, and the more we can conquer it with cruelty and lack of concern. As soon as people think they share nothing with nature, it becomes an object for people to exploit and conquer.” This also contributes to the widespread apathy among the general public despite the urgency of transitioning to sustainable societies.
Balaam’s blessing that invokes a blossoming nature reminds us to reconnect to the land. What can we do? First, “retreat” into nature at least once a month. But real nature, not just the local park. Second, start growing some of your own food. This both helps a person connect to the natural world, and reduces the carbon footprint caused by food being transported long distances.
Rabbi Yonatan Neril is founder and executive director of the Jerusalem-based Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (www.interfaithsustain.com) and its branch Jewish Eco Seminars (www.jewishecoseminars.com).