We need to turn Tu BShevat into a Jewish Earth Day

Many contemporary Jews are increasingly looking at Tu B’Shevat as a Jewish Earth Day, and using Tu B’Shevat seders as occasions to discuss how Jewish values can be applied to reduce many of today’s ecological threats. This is more important than ever in view of the many environmental problems currently facing the United States, Israel and our planet.

Tu B’Shevat (which starts sundown Monday, Jan. 24) can be a great opportunity for education about environmental crises locally, nationally and internationally, with perhaps a special emphasis in some congregations on environmental problems in Israel. It also could help energize our congregations and bring many Jews back to Jewish involvement.

When God created the world, He was able to say, "It is very good." Everything was in harmony as God had planned, the waters were clean, the air was pure. But what must God think about the world today? What must He think when the rain He sends to nourish our crops is often acid rain because of the many chemicals poured into the air by our industries? When the ozone layer He provided to separate the heavens from the earth is being depleted at such a rapid rate? When plants and animals He created are becoming extinct in tropical rain forests and other threatened habitats? When the fertile soil that He provided is rapidly being depleted and eroded? When the climatic conditions that He designed to meet our needs are threatened by global climate change?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control, a group composed of many of the world’s leading climate scientists, is predicting a temperature increase of 2.5 to 10.4 degrees in the next hundred years, a change that would have devastating consequences for the planet. It is also projected that in 30 years the majority of the world’s people will live in areas with insufficient clean water. Israel faces a severe water shortage, badly polluted rivers, air pollution that causes thousands of deaths per year, rapidly declining open space, congested roads and an inadequate mass transit system.

In 1993, more than 1,670 scientists, including 104 Nobel laureates signed a "World Scientists’ Warning To Humanity." Their introduction stated: "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources … Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about."

These environmental problems are largely due to the fact that the ways of the world are completely contrary to Jewish values:

o Judaism teaches that "The earth is the Lord’s" (Psalms 24:1), and that we are to be partners with God in protecting the environment. But today’s philosophy is that the earth is to be exploited for maximum profit, regardless of the long-range ecological consequences.

o Judaism stresses bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value. By contrast, wastefulness in the United States is so great that, with less than 5 percent of the world’s people, we use about a third of the world’s resources, and this has a major impact on pollution and resource scarcities.

It is urgent that Torah values be applied toward the solution of current environmental problems. This means, for example, an energy policy based not on dangerous energy sources, but on conservation and renewable energy, consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving the environment, conserving resources, creating jobs, protecting human lives and considering future generations.

Tu B’Shevat is the New Year for Trees, the date on which the fate of trees is decided for the coming year. Hence, it is an ideal time to consider the rapid destruction of tropical rain forests and other valuable habitats.

It is interesting that the prohibition bal tashchit ("thou shalt not destroy") is based on concern for fruit-bearing trees, since the Torah indicates that even in wartime fruit trees may not be destroyed in order to build battering rams to attack an enemy fortification (Deuteronomy 20:19.20).

The sages of the Talmud made a general prohibition against waste: "Whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs up a fountain, or destroys food violates the prohibition of bal tashchit" (Kiddushin 32a).

On Tu B’Shevat, it is customary to recite Psalm 104, which indicates how God’s concern and care extends to all creatures, and illustrates that God created the entire earth as a unity, in ecological balance. Since Jews are to imitate God’s positive attributes, and we are to be a "light unto the nations," we could have a great impact by being a positive example by imitating God’s concern for all of creation.

It would be wonderful if Jews used Tu B’Shevat, 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. This is essential to help move our precious, but imperiled, planet to a more sustainable path.

Richard H. Schwartz is an emeritus professor of mathematics at the College of Staten Island, N.Y., and the author of "Judaism and Vegetarianism" and "Judaism and Global Survival."

Tu B'Shevat
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