Better a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away.—Proverbs 27:10
A fixed threshing floor must be kept fifty cubits away from a town, and as it must be kept fifty cubits from a town, so it must be kept fifty cubits from a neighbor’s cucumber and pumpkin fields, from his plantations and his ploughed fallow, to prevent damage being caused.—Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 24b
Focusing locally can be an aspect of the purchasing choices we make, but it also can be applied to focusing our attention to our local ecosystem and natural environment. Different areas of the country and world have different ecosystems, different flora and fauna, and while it is important to have a global consciousness in environmentalism, we can act in a sustainable way by doing what we can to promote and preserve our local ecosystem, the one on which we have the most impact.
The quote from Proverbs above, invoked in Talmudic discussions on land sales, is also applicable here. Looking and acting in an environmentally responsible way to our surrounding area is perhaps more important than looking beyond (although a global consciousness is also very important).
The text from the Talmud on agricultural practice is esoteric but perhaps applicable here. At the pshat (straighfoward/literal) level, it is promoting an assurance that there is adequate separation between a threshing floor (where already-harvested crops are kept) and the fields. Fields where plants are still growing may be affected by the dust, and already-plowed fields will become over-fertilized. To maintain these separations is to act in an agriculturally appropriate manner. A drash (interpretive/figurative) on this text might ask us to look beyond the actual practices seeking an understanding of how separation in our approach to plant life is important. Mixing can at times be harmful (e.g. native and non-native plants).
We have taken our human ability “to tend and to till” the soil—as we have with most human endeavors—to a level far beyond what the Torah or Talmud could have imagined. Our reach has spread farther and farther around the planet to today where our reach is truly global. This applies to our relationship with the environment as well, as ecosystems once out of reach are now drawn closer. With this comes the ability to import and export plant species, to take plants from one place and grow them in another.
Not everything will grow everywhere; we are still at the whim of the divine power of Creation. But we are faced with proliferation of species that, although able to grow in a particular area, are unwelcome guests. These plants can push out native species and work slowly to destroy a natural ecosystem developed over millennia. As with the Talmudic farming example, separation in our approach to plant life is important. Mixing can at times be harmful. We can find ourselves in the ironic situation of promoting a thriving ecosystem by destroying one that already exists.
Temple Beth Hatfiloh is currently in the process of a renovation and expansion. After purchasing the local Christian Science Church a few years ago, we are now doing internal renovations and adding an administrative and classroom wing. With the expansion, we have the opportunity to do landscaping. As a community we decided to look local, and our landscaping plan consists of native plants only.
Under the guidance of TBH Board member and environmentalist Tom Connor, we hired a local organization, the Native Plant Salvage Project, to design our landscape. The Project's mission is to “promote the use, preservation, knowledge, and appreciation of native plants in the landscape through action and education.”
While we sought to honor Jewish tradition in selecting plants which are found (or have relatives) in the Torah, we did so only if they were native species to the Northwest as well. We honor our Jewish environmental heritage not by seeking to recreate the agriculture of the Torah, which would not be indigenous, but by seeking to sustain and preserve our local ecosystem. Our landscape will hopefully be a demonstration to the Olympia community. An added benefit is that the gardens designed by the Native Plant Salvage Project are also meant to be water-wise, and seek to protect local water resources.
A common mantra is “think globally and act locally.” In our approach to sustainability and the environment, we must also “think locally and act locally.”
Questions for Thought and Discussion: