Environmentalism & Tu B’Shevat

What is Tu B’Shevat?

Some call it the new year for trees. Other call it the birthday for trees. Our mesora, however, teaches us that it’s celebrated as the new year for trees but actually marks the birthday of the tree – Aytz Chaim – the tree of life. Found in the Garden of Eden, this tree may not be accessible to us at the present moment, but it’s impact affects us to this very day.

In our Torah narrative, we see the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as two separate and far-reaching creations in the Garden. On Shabbos, we sing a song about Aytz Chaim as we open the Ark and put back a Torah scroll for recitation. We, in this moment, directly associate the Tree of Life with Torah. Interestingly enough, Torah is our knowledge of good and evil. One could posit, what if these two trees were the same tree…? But alas, that’s a discussion that’s both off topic and beyond the realms of this post.

Kabbalists practice a Seder of the produce of Israel on Tu B’Shevat. In fact, some hold that this practice is essential in Orthodox life.

Another essential practice, unfortunately far less practiced in the world today, is the active effort of sustainability. Let us take today to consider that being wasteful is not just destructive to the world but also a chillul HaShem – a desecration to G-d’s name. What is wasteful? Using when we need not, especially in the area of polluting the world and oil. In fact, there are two easy and simple ways a person can make an immediate impact on their environmental footprint (there are numerous ways, but let’s start small and scale as we grow):

  1. Stop using single-use plastics. For the ones we need to use, aim for recycled materials, eligibility to be recycled, reusing in the home, or compostable/biodegradable solutions. This includes water bottles, containers for food like clamshells, plastic ware, plastic-lined materials, lids, garbage bags, etc.
  2. Reduce our reliance on cattle. Cattle require a lot of space and produce a lot of methane. And we don’t need it. We can reduce our consumption of meat (I’m a vegetarian) to not at all or even just once/twice a week (for Shabbos, for example). We can also stop drinking regular milk and rely instead on milk alternatives (soy and almond may have their issues, but there’s also hemp, oat, coconut, and rice).

It’s poor form, and a desecration of our duty in HaShem’s name, to waste, use single-use disposable plastics, and be inconsiderate of our natural world. Environmentalism isn’t a political opinion or fodder for elections – it is a mandate from the heavens.

Need proof? Look at the world and it’s suffering. Look at Rav Kook. Look at Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and what he says on the matter:

Not everything is permitted. There are limits to how we interact with the earth. The Torah has commandments regarding how to sow crops, how to collect eggs, and how to preserve trees in a time of war, just to name a few. When we do not treat creation according to God’s Will, disaster can follow.

We see this today as more and more cities sit under a cloud of smog and as mercury advisories are issued over large sectors of our fishing waters. Deforestation of the rainforests, largely a result of humanity’s growing demand for timber and beef, has brought on irrevocable destruction of plant and animal species.

We can no longer ignore the massive negative impact that our global industrial society is having on the ecosystems of the earth. Our unbounded use of fossil fuels to fuel our energy-intensive lifestyles is causing global climate change. An international consensus of scientists predicts more intense and destructive storms, floods, and droughts resulting from these human-induced changes in the atmosphere. If we do not take action now, we risk the very survival of civilisation as we know it.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

In today’s world, we fail to honor G-d when we don’t engage in sustainability. We all have our duty in this. So let’s take up our mantel of responsibility and take care of the garden we have been charged to maintain…