Social Action and Responsibility 5

  • 60 Minutes
  • Grades: 9-12
  • Lesson Plan
What is the connection between Tikkun Olam and our obligation to care for our planet and its creatures?


To extend our understanding of Chesed, this lesson establishes a Jewish textual obligation to take care of our planet and its creatures. Moving from the theoretical to the practical, students then brainstorm ways they can fulfill those obligations.

Lesson objectives

By the end of the lesson students will be able to:

  1. Read passages in Biblical and rabbinical texts in English or Hebrew.
  2. Explain the commandment “to work and guard” the planet.
  3. Provide practical examples of what the commandment means.
  4. Define the concept bal tashchit.
  5. Define the concept tzar baal chayim.
  6. Appreciate the importance of caring for our planet and its creatures.


Baal tashchit

Tzar baal chayim

Resources & Equipment needed

Computer with Internet connection



Contact with Animal Rights/Environmentalism


1. Preparation: Contact a local environmental or animal rights organization and arrange for a speaker to come to your class. If you are interested in inviting a speaker from a Jewish environmental organization, there are several you can be in touch with: American Friends of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel; Canfei Nesharim; Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life; Jewish National Fund; and Teva Learning Center.

2. Trigger (5 minutes) – The Global Effect of Human Actions – Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth – View the trailer  or a clip from the movie. Students are probably familiar with some of the current problems and environmental challenges that face us, but this trigger emphasizes the need for human action.

3. Source Study (10 minutes) – What does Judaism say about our obligation to the environment? Read Bereshit 2:15 and Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Kohelet 7:13 as a class or in hevruta. The first chapters in the Torah and the Midrash outline the task given to us by God.

1. What are the two jobs human beings are being asked to do? To work and guard the garden.

2. Give two examples of how people can fulfill God’s request. By farming the land, making sure people don’t harm it, doing guard duty, or building a fence.

3. Give two examples of how people can disregard God’s request. Letting produce rot, being neglectful of plant life, spoiling water sources, wasting natural materials, etc.

4. Chassidic Rabbi, Rebbe Nachmen from Bretslav, wrote, “If you believe you can ruin, you must also believe you can repair.” How does the Midrash turn the pasuk from Bereshit into an obligation? It adds an extra element. Not only do we have to guard it, but if something goes wrong, it is our obligation to fix it.

4. Source Study (8 minutes) – The Concept of Bal TashchitL Here we look at the concept of bal tashchit (“do not destroy or waste”). When we waste or destroy resources, we are violating the commandment of bal tashchit. The mitzvah originates from a biblical text discussing war. Wars wreak havoc where they are waged, and often little thought is given to the environmental casualties. The Torah strongly prohibits harming trees that are not essential to the struggle. Students should read Devarim 20:19-20 and answer the questions. This discussion of bal tashchit in this lesson plan is limited to the biblical prohibition, but teachers who are interested in expanding the discussion on bal tashchit, may look at the additional sources in the appendix of lesson 6. The biblical prohibition of Bal Tashchit very specifically refers to trees, but during rabbinic times it was understood to be a prohibition against destruction in general. Later rabbinical figures understood that restraining from bal tashchit trains a person to be careful and not destructive.

1. What distinction does the text make about the trees that can and can’t be destroyed? Trees that bear fruit are to be saved, while trees that are used solely for defense maybe be torn up.

2. Why is the environment even a concern during wartime? Shouldn’t winning the war be the number one priority? We must think of the environment that we will live in after the war. Even if the war is necessary we must manage our resources so that we can survive after the battle is over.

5. Source Study (10 minutes) – The concept of Tzar baal chayim: Building on the idea of the previous text – that we have to be careful with the physical world as we go about our business, be it in investment banking or war – we now turn to attention toward the animal world. The following sources provide us with a biblical perspective to have compassion for animals for two reasons: one, being cruel-hearted towards animals might influence our interactions with other people and second, that humans live in an eco-system and if we do not respect it, we could harm our own species. Read Devarim 22:6-7, Ramban (1194-1270) in his commentary on the same verse, and Devarim 11:12-15 and review the questions. The texts demonstrate our prohibition of causing Tzar baal chayim, distress to animals.

1. Why in Devarim 22 do we show concern for the mother bird? A parent has an instinctive nature of protection and nurturing. One should show compassion so that it would not see the destruction of the child it brought into the world.

2.According to the Ramban, why is it wrong for both the mother and the young to be killed at the same moment even if the food would go to a hungry family? Even if the cause is a worthy one, we demonstrate an ethical will not to completely destroy the cycle of creation, and allow at least one side of the family to reproduce anew.

3. Why in verse 15 is the blessing for food for your cattle before human satisfaction from food? These are the opening sentences of the second paragraph of the Shema. We learn that our animals needs come before our own satisfaction. If you have animals within your home or on your farm, you have an obligation to make sure that they are fed and cared for before you sit down to eat. From the text, we can see that part of service to God with all one’s heart and soul, means treating humans as well as animals with compassion.

6. Presentation from environmental/animal rights organization (10 minutes) – Students should understand that following through on the concepts studied today (working and guarding the planet, baal tashchit, tzar baal chayim) leads to the practical work carried out by these types of organizations.

7. Conclusion (10 minutes) – Tell the classic story of Choni HaMeagel (Honi the Circle Maker) from the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a). Choni observed a man planting a carob tree and asked him how long it took for the tree to bear fruit. The man answered that the process takes seventy years. Choni then asked why he was planting the tree since there was little chance that he would enjoy the fruits in his lifetime. The man answered that he found a tree planted by his forefathers, and he would plant a tree for those who followed him. How can we make a positive impact that our children and grandchildren will feel? Brainstorm ideas and relate them back to the topics discussed in class. Examples can be recycling, using public transportation, farming, composting, treating animals properly, etc.

Extras: Putting The Lesson in Context In order to put this lesson in the context of the unit, the teacher may want to show students the diagram in the appendix. Our previous lessons on Chesed and Tzedakah, focusing on refugees and poverty, looked at our obligations of Tikun Olam to humankind (community and society as a whole). This lesson focuses on our obligation of Tikun Olam as regards to the world at large both animal and physical.