In light of the phenomena of “global warming” and all our air pollution, I wanted to ask does the Torah also command us not to pollute the air from an environmental concern or is only between man and man? From what I understand, the Torah’s approach to pollution is more to prevent harming your neighbor and not necessarily from an obligation to protect the environment.
Shalom! It is indeed true that we must protect the world that G-d gave us! This is found in Halacha (Jewish Law) and also in Jewish Midrashic Literature. King Solomon says “See the doings of G-d for who can correct what he harmed?” (Koheleth 7, 13) The Midrash relates; “When G-d created Man he took (Adam) around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and told him, “See how nice my creations are! All I created is for your benefit. See to it, that you don’t destroy my world for if you do no one can repair it after you” (Midrash Koheleth Rabati 7, 28).
Our obligation to look after the world is inseparable from our interpersonal commandments. Our Earth as a planet is no different from any other. If mankind were to G-d forbid disappear in a nuclear holocaust Planet Earth would stay the same. What is the difference? The world was created to serve man. Even the animal kingdom is for man’s needs. Our creator sustains the whole universe for the people who fulfill the divine purpose of; “if not for my covenant of day and night (Torah study) I would not have implemented the laws of the heavens and earth (of nature to sustain the world).”
We are obligated to protect our environment for our brothers the rest of mankind! Therefore we are obligated to protect the world and the animals inhabiting it, just as we saw in the aforementioned Midrash. We must guard over the King’s palace which is deposited with us for our benefit.
Similarly, just as the world is a deposit with us for safekeeping, whose state of wellbeing we are responsible for, so too our bodies were given to us by G-d for our benefit as a temporary deposit. Therefore we must watch over our lives and our health.
Righteous Jews always considered their bodies a living being that they were responsible for.
The verse in Proverbs 11,17 says, “a kind man does kindness to his soul” The Midrash relates: This verse speaks of Hillel the Elder that would accompany his students as they left him. His students would ask him,” Rabbi, where are you going?” “To do a mitzvah” he answered. Which mitzvah? They asked. “To go bathe in the bathhouse” he answered. What mitzva is that? They asked. Hillel answered, “When you go to a bathhouse there are statues of the kings ornamenting the bathhouse. The people who maintain these statues wash and clean them. They get wages for doing this and they’re treated with utmost respect by the royalty. I am created in the image and likeness of G-d as the verse says “in the image of G-d man was made” isn’t it all the more so?”
The righteous considered their bodies a temporary deposit that they are responsible for. The world too is a deposit we must watch over for G-d’s divine purpose.