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It's Time to Employ Judaism to Speak for the World's Trees

Originally published Dec, 2003. Republished February 1, 2012.

This article is reprinted with permission of JTA.

NEW YORK, Dec. 31 (JTA)--Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, is an ideal time for considering how Jewish values can be applied to today's many environmental threats. And since Tu Bishvat falls on a Shabbat this year--beginning the evening of Jan. 17 on the secular calendar--it provides a wonderful opportunity for many synagogues and other Jewish groups to make it an "Environmental Shabbat," with observances that increase the environmental awareness of its members.

Today's environmental threats can be compared in many ways to the Ten Plagues, which appear in the Torah portions read on the Sabbath days immediately preceding Tu Bishvat. When we consider the threats to our land, water and air, the use of pesticides and other chemical pollutants, resource scarcities and threats to our climate, we can easily enumerate 10 modern "plagues."

Like the ancient Pharaoh, our hearts have been hardened by the greed, materialism and waste that are at the root of current environmental threats. While the ancient Egyptians were subjected to one plague at a time, modern plagues are occurring simultaneously. While the Jews in Goshen were spared most of the biblical plagues, every person on earth is imperiled by the modern plagues.

There are frequent news reports today about water shortages, destruction of tropical rain forests, bleaching of coral reefs, soil erosion and depletion, species extinction, global climate change and its effects, and other environmental threats. In 1993, more than 1,670 scientists, including 104 Nobel laureates, signed a "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity." Their introduction stated: "Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know."

Among Judaism's many powerful teachings on the environment are "The Earth is the Lord's" (Psalms 24:1), and we are to be partners with God in protecting the environment. We are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value.

This prohibition, ba'al tashchit--"thou shalt not destroy"--can be related to Tu Bishvat because it is based on the Torah teaching that fruit trees may not be destroyed even in war time in order to build battering rams to attack an enemy fortification (Deuteronomy 20:19,20). The very first task assigned to humans by God, was (and is) to care for the environment: "God took man and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and guard it." (Genesis 2:15). Today's environmental problems are largely the result of the sharp contrast between the ways of the world and these Jewish teachings.

Tu Bishvat marks the early beginnings of the spring season in Israel when the land begins to overflow with a new harvest and many fruits. Hence, the holiday is dedicated to the praises of the Land of Israel. Israeli school children plant trees to celebrate Tu Bishvat.

In the 17th century, the kabbalists in Safed created a Tu Bishvat seder, patterned on elements of the Passover seder. It consisted of a special festive meal of fruits and nuts and four cups of wine, accompanied by many blessings and scriptural readings on the fruits of Israel, which they invested with mystical and symbolic meanings.

In recent years, Jewish communities around the world have begun to celebrate Tu Bishvat as a "Jewish Earth Day"--organizing seders, tree-plantings, ecological restoration activities and educational events, all of which provide an opportunity to express a Jewish commitment to protecting the earth. Many contemporary Jews are increasingly using the day to discuss and focus on ecological threats. This is more important than ever today in view of the many environmental problems currently facing Israel and our planet.

Some possibilities for making this Tu Bishvat into an "Environmental Shabbat" include:

  • a Tu Bishvat seder on Friday night, with a discussion or guest speaker on an environmental topic;
  • sermon on Jewish environmental teachings on Shabbat morning;
  • an environmentally conscious kiddush or lunch, with a minimum of waste and an environmental d'var Torah (teaching story); and
  • a discussion or a guest speaker on an environmental topic after morning services (possibly as part of a kiddush) or between afternoon and evening services.
     

Making Tu Bishvat into an "Environmental Shabbat" would be a great opportunity for education about environmental crises locally, nationally and internationally, with perhaps a special emphasis in some congregations on environmental problems threatening Israel.

It also could help energize our congregations and bring many Jews back to Jewish involvement. One group that has been integrating environmental concern into Jewish life is COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Founded in 1993, it embraces 29 national Jewish organizations across the religious and communal spectrum and 13 regional affiliates and serves as the voice of the Jewish community on environmental issues in Washington. The group also works closely with other faith communities. "Protecting creation is a central part of what it must mean to be a Jew today," said Mark Jacobs, COEJL's executive director. "The integrity of our global environment, of God's creation, is threatened by human action. It is our responsibility as Jews to respond. Tu Bishvat is a natural time to learn about environmental issues and how we can respond."

In view of the many environmental threats today, it is essential that Jews use Tu Bishvat and activities related to this increasingly important holiday, as occasions to make tikkun olam, the repair and healing of the planet, a central focus in Jewish life today, thereby helping to move our planet to a more sustainable path.

Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. Hebrew for "15th of [the month of] Shevat," both a date and the name of a holiday celebrated on that date. A holiday that falls in January or February, it's the New Year for trees. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Richard H. Schwartz

Richard H. Schwartz is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival and Mathematics and Global Survival, as well as more than 100 articles at jewishveg.com/schwartz.

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