Teach this to Your Children

It’s the end of another Tu b’Shevat season, a busy time for many of us in the Jewish environmental community. Despite all my activity this year, it actually felt relatively tame in comparison to some prior years, where I often led 2-3 seders per year. This year I only led one seder – with my husband and son at my house on Friday night.

Leading a Tu b’Shevat Seder for an almost 8-year old and my husband was rather different from leading to the dozens of people at my seders in the past. But I must say that if leading all of those seders led us down to that one night together, eating fruit and nuts, talking about protecting the environment and all the various aspects of creation, and thinking about G-d’s intention for the world – it would have been worth it. The preciousness of seeing my son evolving into a little person with his own ideas, telling stories, and thinking about how important it is to protect the oceans, the clean air, the water and the land – and having him realize that there is a method to all of our actions (the Priuses, the geothermal, the CSA) – that we do them for a reason.

As Orthodox Jews, we live in a world filled with actions and reasons behind them. Why do we eat matzah on Passover? Why do we dress up on Purim? Why don’t we drive on Shabbat? There is an entire library worth of reasons for the way we live our lives. My son learns about these lessons at school, along with math and reading – so they feel like a natural part of his life. Personally, I think that’s wonderful – to learn faith and action as a part of his basic education – which is why I am sending him to a Jewish day school.

But when it comes to protecting our environment, there are fewer cultural mores and instructions in our lives. Although his school (and especially his science teacher) are environmentally inclined, I’m sure they are not learning that we must drive a Prius because it reduces air pollution or carbon dioxide in the air! Even if these lessons are present, of course there’s no set of divinely given laws to guide exactly what we must do. Part of that is because the challenges are extremely complex (hard to understand even for an adult, let alone a child) and the environmental movement is actually quite young. But part of it is because we haven’t created any cultural structures to answer these incredibly complex ethical and moral challenges – so we let science stand in, even though it’s inadequate when it comes to reaching people at the level of values, and (similarly) when it comes to teaching children in the formative primary years.

Teaching my son on Tu b’Shevat, I started to see what a cultural, ethical, religious view on protecting the environment might look like:

We teach these lessons to our children because we want them to preserve the precious resources we have. We draw their attention to things that may be transparent to them, like the importance of clean air and healthy land. We help them appreciate the wonder of water and the enormous number of species in the ocean. We inspire them to think of these as gifts from G-d, to be treated with respect. We tell them of things that we already do to protect these things – large and small. In so doing, we communicate a deeper value to our children, one that they will carry with them with pride – much more so than the fear and dread we cultivate when we scare them with threats, or the confusion we breed when we talk about complex scientific challenges and solutions. Perhaps this type of communication is important not just for our children but for all people.

On December 26, Rebecca Tarbotton, the head of Rainforest Action Network, died at age 39. May her memory be for a blessing. I can’t tell you how sorry I am that I learned about her only through the news of her untimely death. There is a video of her speaking on the Grist Magazine website. One of the things that struck me from listening to her video was this quote (also reposted by Grist and the RAN website):

“The project of our time is bigger even than climate change. We need to be setting our sights higher and deeper. What we’re really talking about, if we’re honest with ourselves, is transforming everything about the way we live on this planet.”

I couldn’t agree more. And one of the things we will need, to transform the way we live on this planet, is a new, deep, cultural understanding of the preciousness of our resources and how we use them. We need to model this to our children (and also all of today's grown up children), in the beautiful way that Jewish tradition teaches us to do so. Perhaps the model of the Tu b’Shevat seder can remind us that we already have this wisdom in our tradition – now is the time to activate it for today’s challenges, to act on it and to share it.

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