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Jewish Earth Day
Tu B’Shvat is referred to as the Rosh HaShana L’Ilanos, the New Year for Trees.

Adam opened his eyes in a beautiful garden. We’re all familiar with that part of the story.

But the Midrash continues:

“During the hour that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, created the first human being, He took him and showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden. He said to him, ‘See My works, how lovely they are; Put your mind to it that you don’t ruin and destroy my world. Because if you ruin it, there is no one to repair it after you.”

To state the obvious, G-d was right. Our ecological footprint has lasting consequences. The ozone layer, which absorbs some 98% of the sun’s lethal ultra-violet radiation, is slowly but surely being depleted by things like our aerosol deodorants. Hello, skin cancer. Global warming is fostering disease, hurricanes, and the destruction of fragile ecosystems. Why? Among other things, our home electricity and our cars burn fossil fuels like it’s going out of style. Water pollution means that over three and a half million people die from water-related diseases every year. That includes over 1.4 million children. Ever dropped your trash in a puddle and looked the other way? So did Exxon-Valdez. Whoops.

Let Them Eat Cake

Okay, so skin cancer from the breached ozone layer doesn’t scare you. You’ve never been in a hurricane and figure that global warming is happening to someone else. Plus, you live in a prosperous western country with plenty of uncontaminated water and couldn’t care less about all the babies dying in Africa. Let them eat cake.

You’re the typical western self-absorbed yuppie who figures that caring about the environment is for college students and people with long hair. So let me make this very clear. Ever had a headache? When we talk about the environment, we’re talking about things like your aspirin.

Consider this: compounds found exclusively in rainforest plants are currently used to treat heart disease, bronchitis, hypertension, rheumatism, diabetes, muscle tension, arthritis, glaucoma, dysentery, tuberculosis, and scores of other common and uncommon maladies. Yet the rainforests, which also produce two thirds of all medicines found to have cancer-fighting properties, are being burnt and cut down on an hourly basis around the clock.

Just to put this in perspective, a particular plant found only in Madagascar rainforests increased the chances of survival for children with leukemia from twenty to eighty percent. Now that plant is extinct. In fact, that entire rain forest is extinct. Its plum doesn’t exist anymore. We just went ahead and cut it all down. Whatever other life-saving plants could have been found there will now never be found.

Who wins? No matter how callous we can get, if someone we love is diagnosed with cancer, G-d forbid, we will sure wish that we had done something to try to stop the mass destruction of the rainforests where there may have been a cure.

What all this boils down to is that ecology and conservation are our problem. But not for the reasons that we might think.

Zooming In

We think that the reason we ought to save the earth is so that we don’t all drop dead. Is that a good reason? Maybe. But Judaism points in an entirely different direction.

Let’s look at that Midrash about G-d and Adam in the Garden of Eden again:

“See My works, how lovely they are; Put your mind to it that you don’t ruin and destroy my world.”

Now, be honest here. Do you really think that G-d was worried about the trees?

Come on! This was the sixth day of creation. Every tree on the planet had just been created on day three. Heck, the entire planet had only been banged into being less than a week ago. If G-d wanted trees, He could have made more of ‘em. No problem!

In fact, G-d can still make more of them. Judaism asserts that not a fraction of time goes by without the Almighty consciously, lovingly, and intentionally willing you, me, the trees, and everything else back into existence. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi – every one of those seconds was a new creation, and at every one of these seconds, so were you. Judaism is not really worried about trees. To paraphrase a four-year-old, He’s got the whole world in His hands.

Well, almost the whole world. Torah explains that G-d created the universe in such a way that there is only one thing that He does not display control over. That one thing is human free choice. The entire purpose of creation was to give human beings the opportunity to enjoy a happy, loving relationship with Him, and by definition, a loving, happy relationship means no coercion on either part. Our free choice must be, well, free.

In order to keep our free choice intact, G-d allows our choices to have real consequences like dead rainforests and poisoned air and water, but not because we are the masters of the universe. The real Master of the Universe could repair the rainforests in a blink if He wanted to. But first He is waiting for us to repair ourselves.

Watch the camera zooming away from the wide-lens view of the planet, the ozone layer, the rainforests, the water problems…and straight into a close-up of the human heart. The reason that G-d wants us to “put our minds to it” that we do not destroy the world is so that we do not become destructive people. That isn’t just an ethical imperative. It also happens to be an excellent conservation strategy.

Torah Environmentalism

You see, one of the primary marketing techniques used by the environmentalism movement is that saving the earth is good for you. But that feeds right into the same selfish self-absorption that causes us to behave so destructively in the first place. After all, if all I care about is what is good for me, then why should I bother myself with saving the rainforests for all those cancer patients that I have never met or lobbying for clean water for all those Africans on some other continent?

Looking out for number one doesn’t lend itself to a global perspective. It’s a narrow outlook: me, here, now, on this couch, with this bag of potato chips. Humanism builds a pretty-looking boat but it doesn’t have much of a motor. In practical terms, selfishness doesn’t get anyone very far.

In contrast, the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat celebrates a much more impactful impetus to save the planet. Though the holiday is often celebrated by eating traditional foods like dried fruits, the real oomph behind the holiday is in its legal ramifications.

What Tu B’Shvat means in Jewish life is that all the laws and practices concerning trees are calculated from that date. For example, to this day, any fruit sapling planted within the biblical borders of Israel is to be left fallow for its first three years. In the fourth year, when the Beis HaMikdash (temple) was standing, Jews were commanded to bring the entire yield of the new tree to eat in acknowledgement of G-d’s kindness in Jerusalem, where His presence could be most potently felt. But how do we know which year is considered the third year, or the fourth? We calculate from the first Tu B’Shvat after the tree has been planted.

Tu B’Shvat is a marker for the legal status of fruit trees in Israel and other Jewish ecological laws. Because of this, Tu B’Shvat is often referred to as the Rosh HaShana L’Ilanos, the New Year for Trees. But these Jewish laws and practices are not just dry rituals or ancient farming techniques. They are designed to remind us of the meaning of our bounty. The earth was not created as a tool for our selfish, hedonistic pleasure, but as a tool for the much greater pleasure of our powerful love relationship with the Creator Himself.

Tu B’Shvat was and remains the day that Jews remember that the trees of the world belong to the Almighty. So do the whales, the rainforests, and even the ozone layer. As G-d put it in the Garden of Eden, “See My works…” When we realize that the rainforests belong to G-d, suddenly we might think twice before slashing and burning them like there is no tomorrow. Thoughtlessly destroying trees, water, and air doesn’t just destroy our environment. It destroys our relationship with their Creator.

Like a love letter to be savored again and again, everything G-d created, as well as every mitzvah, all revolve around a single objective: helping us choose, through every viscera of our personalities, to develop a sweet, heroic, delightful intimacy with He who spoke and brought the world into being. He who makes our hearts beat. He who loves us more than we can begin to conceptualize. Choosing to live in love with our Creator also happens to include choosing to guard His beautiful earth.

But the impact of our relationship with the earth goes even deeper.

The True Taste of Enjoyment

“Just as He is merciful, so you should be merciful,” intones the Talmud. Why? Because, as Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen explains, just as closeness in the physical world is measured by inches, so closeness in the spiritual world is measured by similarity. The real key to the profound intimacy that we were created to share with the Almighty is by emulating Him.

And He does a very nice job of running nature, don’t you think?

Lightening our ecological footprint does not begin with government summits or conservationist lobbies. Those may help a great deal, but at best they are a symptom of the real solution, not the cause. To get to the kernel of the matter and turn our environmental destruction around, we need to change ourselves.

We need to become less selfish and more caring. We need to slowly turn our hearts from lusting after the superficial, transient pleasures of materialism to running after the satisfying, lasting pleasures of learning, growth, and love. We need to get our heads out of the quicksand of our own self-absorption, lift our eyes to the skies, take a gulp of deep, fresh air, and remember that we’re alive in a world of beauty so gracious and intelligent that it is all but signed with the fingerprint of the Infinite Himself.

In the immortal words of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch,

“In the Jewish land, where the Divine law has full scope, nothing was supposed to germinate or blossom or ripen without bringing the Jew obligations as well as enjoyment. A duty is attached to every enjoyment, and it alone gives enjoyment its true taste by turning what would otherwise be selfish and animal into a human acknowledgement of Divine love.”

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