By: Nina-Beth Cardin
Environmental Justice is a little-known concept outside certain circles of activists. It emerged from the awareness that the impact of fixing the environment, and dealing with global warming’s negative consequences, will disproportionately, and unfairly, impact the poor. Disproportionately, because the poor have fewer resources to invest in the emerging efficiencies or to pay for the higher prices of energy and common goods; and unfairly because they are not the major contributors to environmental degradation.
It is all the more remarkable, then, that the coupling of these two issues, environmental protection and economic equity, is present in our founding text, the Torah.
“Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it.” (Exodus 23:10-11)
This year of environmental restoration and generosity is the Shemittah year, which, according to rabbinic time-keeping, falls again now. This year, in an ideal world, the land would regenerate its nutrients and fertility, and would feed the poor at no cost from its spontaneous harvest.
One could imagine that in a year without farming, produce would be scarce, and expensive. Enterprising entrepreneurs could gather the crops that grew on their own and could sell them at exorbitant shemittah prices. To prevent this, and to be certain that the costs of regenerating and healing the land would not unfairly disenfranchise the poor, the fields were open to all, according to their needs. The poor ate for free.
But the biblical injunction to protect the poor did not stop there. “This shall be the nature of the forgiveness [in the shemittah year] : every creditor shall forgive the debt that his fellow owes him; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the forgiveness proclaimed is of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 15).
It is not just the land that shall be rejuvenated every seven years. It is everyone. Debts that crush a person’s initiative; debts that leech the fertility and creativity out of a person’s spirit, and therefore rob all society of their potential, are done away with come the shemittah year.
Environmental protection cannot be allowed to burden the poor. Scarcity cannot be allowed to burden the poor. Debt cannot be allowed to condemn the indebted.
Caring for the earth cannot be done at the cost of burdening the poor. When both land and the poor are cared for, everyone thrives.