Preserving the Sacred Environment: A Religious Imperative – A Tu Bishvat Message
Many contemporary Jews look upon Tu Bishvat as a Jewish Earth Day, a day for contemplating our ecological heritage – and the multitude of threats it currently faces.
An ancient midrash has become all too relevant today:
“In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, He showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)
Today’s environmental threats can be compared in many ways to the Biblical ten plagues, which appear in the Torah portions read on the Shabbats immediately preceding Tu Bishvat. When we consider the threats to our land, water, and air, pesticides and other chemical pollutants, resource scarcities, threats to our climate, etc., we can easily enumerate ten modern “plagues.” Unfortunately, like the ancient Pharaoh, our hearts have been hardened, by the greed, materialism, and wastefulness that are at the root of these threats. And, in contrast to the biblical plagues, modern plagues are all occurring simultaneously, and there is no modern Goshen as a refuge, where most of these plagues do not occur.
The sacred environment
The Talmudic sages express a sense of sanctity toward the environment: “The atmosphere (air) of the land of Israel makes one wise.” (Baba Batra 158b) They assert that people’s role is to enhance the world as “partners of God in the work of creation.” (Shabbat 10a) The rabbis indicate great concern for preserving the environment and preventing pollution: “It is forbidden to live in a town which has no garden or greenery.” (Kiddushin 4:12; 66d) Threshing floors are to be placed far enough from a town so that the town is not dirtied by chaff carried by winds. (Baba Batra 2:8) Tanneries are to be kept at least 50 cubits from a town and to be placed only on its eastern side, so that odors are not carried by the prevailing winds from the west. (Baba Batra 2:8,9)
“The Earth is the Lord’s” (Psalms 24:1)
We are the stewards of God’s Earth, responsible to see that its produce is available for all God’s children. Property is a sacred trust given by God; it must be used to fulfill God’s purposes.
The story is told of two men who were fighting over a piece of land. Each claimed ownership and bolstered his claim with apparent proof. To resolve their differences, they agreed to put the case before the rabbi. The rabbi listened but could come to no decision because both seemed to be right. Finally he said, “Since I cannot decide to whom this land belongs, let us ask the land.” He put his ear to the ground and, after a moment, straightened up. “Gentlemen, the land says it belongs to neither of you but that you belong to it.”
“Thou shall not destroy”
The prohibition not to waste or destroy unnecessarily anything of value (bal tashchit – “thou shalt not destroy”) is based on concern for fruit-bearing trees, as indicated in the following Torah statement:
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you under siege? Only trees that you know to not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been destroyed. (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)
This prohibition against destroying fruit-bearing trees in time of warfare was extended by the Jewish sages. 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)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 19th century philosopher and author, states that bal tashchit is the first and most general call of God: We are to “regard things as God’s property and use them with a sense of responsibility for wise human purposes. Destroy nothing! Waste nothing!” He indicates further that destruction includes using more things (or things of greater value) than are necessary to obtain one’s aim. (Horeb; Chapter 56)
It has become customary to recite Psalms on Tu Bishvat, among them Psalm 104. This Psalm speaks of God’s concern and care extended to all creatures, and illustrates that God created the entire earth as a unity, in ecological balance:
You make springs gush forth in torrents; they make their way between the hills, giving drink to all the wild beasts; the wild asses slake their thirst. The birds of the sky dwell beside them and sing among the foliage. You water the mountains from Your lofts; the earth is sated from the fruit of Your work. You make the grass grow for the cattle, and herbage for man’s labor, that he may get food out of the earth, wine that cheers the hearts of men, oil that makes the face shine, and bread that sustains man’s life. (Psalm 104: 10 -15)
Tu Bishvat is indeed an appropriate time to apply Judaism’s powerful ethic of reverence for God’s creation, conservation and sustainability, to help move our precious, but imperiled, planet to a sustainable path.
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet, and Mathematics and Global Survival, and over 250 articles and 25 podcasts at JewishVeg.com/schwartz. He is President Emeritus of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV).. He is associate producer of the 2007 documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.” His latest project involves working to restore the ancient Jewish holiday “New Year for Animals” to increase awareness of Jewish teachings on compassion to animals.