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Tu BiSh'vat Guide: Judaism and the Environment

Judaism and the Environment

During Tu BiSh'vat, we focus our attention on the environment. As Reform Jews, family and community are central to our lives. We are reminded again and again throughout our liturgy to pass on our tradition l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. So too, must we pass on the earth that we have been given and act as environmental stewards tilling and tending the earth as humankind was told to “till and tend” in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15). Now is a pivotal moment in history to ensure that our children and grandchildren inherit a habitable earth, free from the devastation of climate destruction.

Perhaps the most commonly associated object ascribed to the environment is trees, which in many ways come to represent all of nature. Trees are special in and of themselves, but they are even more significant in the context of the ecosystems of which they are a part. Ecologically, trees are at the heart of the environment. They shade streams, keeping temperatures constant, provide food, build the soil, and absorb carbon dioxide.

Trees hold a special place in the Jewish imagination. The Torah is described as a “tree of life” to those who hold it dear. The two trees in the center of the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, figure prominently in our creation story in the book of Genesis. As Ellen Bernstein, founder of Shomrei Adamah/Keepers of the Earth, notes, trees are the symbol of life and sustenance. She writes: “The rabbis said that God created Paradise on the third day of Creation, the same day that God made trees and green growing things. They said that there were eighty myriads of trees in every corner of Paradise and that the Tree of Life had fifteen thousand tastes and it stood in the middle of the Garden of Eden. The rabbinic Paradise was the picture of biological diversity” (Bernstein, Land, Community and Sprawl, Torah of the Earth, p. 224).

However, it is not just the trees that evoke a power in the Jewish imagination, but also the land itself. Land is a central and basic theme of biblical faith. The land is a blessing that God promises our ancestors. God could give no greater gift, nor provide a greater challenge—the people were being asked to live consciously on the land in community. However, the land is never actually ours to own, because the land belongs to God. We are not given ownership; rather we are afforded the right to inhabit the land and use it for proper purposes, to live a way of life guided by the covenant. It is, therefore, our job as stewards of the earth and of God’s Creation to care for and be active in preservation and maintenance of the land and bounty which God provided.

We live in a world of immanent climate disaster, with rising sea levels, increased ocean acidification, air pollution, and decreased biodiversity all due to rising global carbon dioxide emissions. How can we fulfill the commandment to tend and to pass on the earth to the next generation? The information, resources and programs in this TuBishevat guide provide a couple of different ways for you to raise up environmental issues in your congregation or at home on a Jewish holiday devoted to caring for the trees.