The Jewish Earth Day

Trying To Makes Tu B'Shvat Matter

Desert Blooming: A Jewish National Fund tree in the Negev Desert of Israel.
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Desert Blooming: A Jewish National Fund tree in the Negev Desert of Israel.

By Leonard Fein

Published January 26, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
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Social justice again? No, social justice still, this time with a twist.

Soon it will be Tu B’Shvat, familiarly known as “the Birthday of the Trees,” and often understood as a kind of Jewish Arbor Day. Let’s all go out and plant trees.

Planting trees is a good thing to do, but it seems quite distant from such transcendent themes as justice. Here is where justice enters: God, we are taught, declares to us: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one after you to repair it.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

That’s a hard teaching these days, these days of climate change, of global warming, the bi-products of the abandon with which we assault nature and poison the environment. Like so much else, thoughtlessness and avarice and brutal disregard for the generations to come define our behavior, trump our rhetoric no matter how inspired it be. And it is useful, albeit unpleasant, to remember that the chief victims of the ongoing climate change are the developing nations, so vulnerable are they to drought and flood, and so limited are they in the resources necessary to do effective battle with the deteriorating environment.

We are neither prophets nor the sons and daughters of prophets, but that does not relieve us of responsibility. For we are, however preoccupied with seemingly more immediate concerns, earth’s custodians, guardians of a creation entrusted to us, commanded to choose life.

Few of us, I suspect, deny the harsh facts of climate change. We cluck our tongues, shake our heads — and go on about our business; our stubborn carbon footprint remains intact.

All this suggests an expanded view of Tu B’Shvat. The holiday comes as an opportunity to go beyond its sweet but conventional limitations, as evidenced in what is likely the best known Tu B’Shvat song: “The almond tree is growing, a golden sun is glowing, birds sing out in joyous glee from every roof and every tree — Tu B’Shvat is here, the Jewish Arbor Day, hail the new year of the trees.”

So, the question: Can we enlarge Tu B’Shvat, transform it into an environmental holiday, one marked not just by traditional ditties, but also by a sober concern for the broader environmental challenges we face? A time, for example, to understand more deeply the challenge of stewardship of a world whose stewards we are — or, at the very least, are meant to be.

Fortunately, the Jewish community’s response to these sobering concerns does not begin from gound zero. Ten years ago, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life was created to address the climate crisis through advocacy for policies that support energy efficiency and security as well as to shape an ongoing effort to encourage the agencies and institutions of our community to become models of responsible behavior with regards to the climate. And this year, for Tu B’Shvat, COEJL is releasing the Jewish Energy Guide, a comprehensive resource, featuring articles from renowned Jewish and environmental leaders that is intended to inspire awareness and action to make a meaningful impact on the daunting challenges of climate change.

For this, COEJL deserves not merely praise, but also the translation of its policies and positions into personal and communal agendas.

For if we do not do these things, who will do them? It is for us to restore what has been ruined, make straight the crooked way, preserve, protect and cherish the bounty that is ours to tend and ours to bequeath, repaired, to those yet to come.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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