Turning Tu Bishvat Into an “Environmental Shabbat”


Richard H. Schwartz

Many contemporary Jews are increasingly looking at Tu Bishvat as a Jewish “Earth Day,” and using Tu Bishvat 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 today in view of the many environmental problems currently facing Israel and our planet.

Since Tu Bishvat falls on a Shabbat this Hebrew year (January 25-26, 2013), it would be wonderful if many congregations treated it as an “Environmental Shabbat” with observances that would increase the environmental awareness and activism of its members. This could be a great opportunity for education about environmental issues 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.

People are becoming increasingly aware of and concerned about climate change because of almost daily reports about record heat waves, widespread forest fires, an increase in the number and severity of storms, severe droughts, the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps and, most recently, the incredible devastation of Superstorm Sandy. All eleven warmest years worldwide since temperature records have been kept have occurred since 1998; 2012 was the warmest year in US history by over a full degree Fahrenheit; the temperature in Australia was so hot in early 2013 that a new color had to be added to maps showing temperature differences.

Science academies all over the world are issuing dire predictions about the impact of continued climate change. A recent report indicated that the world’s average temperature could rise by six degrees Celsius, which would be devastating to all life on the planet. Some renowned climate scientists, such as James Hansen of NASA, are warning that global climate change may reach a 'tipping point' and spiral out of control within a decade, with disastrous consequences, if current conditions continue. The Israeli Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva, v’Din) projects that, because of climate change, Israel will experience an average decrease in precipitation of 20-30 percent, major flooding during some storms, expanding deserts, major heat waves, and an inundation of the coastal plain, where most Israelis live, by a rising Mediterranean Sea. Hence, it is essential that saving the planetary environment become a central focus for civilization today, and that tikkun olam, the healing and repair of the world, become a major factor in all aspects of Jewish life today.

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 God think when the rain to nourish our crops is often acid rain due to the many chemicals poured into the air by our industries? when the abundance of species of plants and animals are becoming extinct in tropical rain forests and other threatened habitats, before we have even cataloged them? when the once fertile soil is rapidly being eroded? when the climatic conditions designed to meet our needs are threatened by global warming?

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

1. 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.

2. 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 five percent of the world's people we use about a quarter 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 CARE (conservation and renewable energy), consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving the environment, conserving resources, creating jobs, protecting human lives, and considering future generations.

Tu Bishvat 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 war time fruit trees may not be destroyed in order to build battering rams to attack an enemy fortification (Deuteronomy 20:19.20). The Jewish sages extended this prohibition. It is forbidden to cut down even a barren tree or to waste anything if no useful purpose is accomplished (Sefer Ha-Chinuch 530). 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). In summary, bal tashchit prohibits the destruction, complete or incomplete, direct or indirect, of all objects of potential benefit to people. Imagine the impact if this prohibition was put into practice by society today!

Some possibilities for an "Environmental Shabbat" include:

1. A Tu B'Shvat seder on Friday night, with a discussion or guest speaker on an environmental topic;

2. A sermon on Jewish environmental teachings on Shabbat morning;

3. An environmentally-conscious kiddush or lunch, with a minimum of waste and an environmental dvar Torah;

4. A discussion or a guest speaker on an environmental topic after morning services (possibly as part of a kiddush) or between Mincha and Maariv.

The important thing is that the seriousness of the threats and the urgency of applying Jewish values to combat them be considered, and that tikkun olam, the repair and healing of the planet, becomes a central focus in Jewish life today. This is essential to help move our precious, but imperiled, planet to a sustainable path.

. ================== There is much valuable background material on Jewish teachings on environmental issues and Tu Bishvat observances at the web sites of COEJL (Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) (www.coejl.org), Canfei Nesharim (“Wings of Eagles”) (www.canfeinesharim.org/), and the Shalom Center (www.theShalomCenter.org).

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