For Jews “Earth Day” is (at Least) 1800 years Old

After Chanukah the next special occasion in the Jewish year is Tu B’Shevat, the birthday of the trees. This year Tu B’Shevat corresponds to January 28. 

It is first and foremost a holiday to remind us of our responsibility to care for the environment.

In the United States we began celebrating “Earth Day” in 1970. Earth Day responded to a need to recognize and take cognizance of our human responsibility to protect our environment. Here on our sanctuary Island of Sanibel, there are, thankfully, many different initiatives that promote environmental awareness and care. 

Last year young Greta Thunberg became TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year for focusing the world’s attention on our neglect of the environment.

Our festival of environmental awareness, Tu B’Shevat, is first mentioned in the Mishnah, compiled between 200 BCE and 200 CE.  That means we Jews began observing our “Earth Day” and publicly focusing on environmental awareness for at least 1800 years. 

.  In chapter seven of the Midrash Kohelet Rabbah we read:  “After the creation of the world God addressed the first couple, Adam and Eve, and told them to take care of this world and all of its beauty and abundance.  Beware, though, God reminded them, of destroying or polluting this earth because it is the only one we shall have. “

In the late 1980’s, when I served as Rabbi in Nashville, Albert Gore, then a U.S. Senator from Tennessee, began convening seminars which led to his book and movie about the environment which eventually won him the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007.  At the first of these occasions Senator Gore invited me to share a closing homily that concretized this concern.  On that occasion I shared the following story:

Once upon a time — long ago –there was a goat with horns so long that when he stretched his neck, they grazed the sky and caused the stars to sing the most beautiful melody anyone had ever heard.  One day a man was walking through the forest thinking of buying a gift for his wife’s birthday when he encountered the goat.  Seeing his beautiful horns he thought to cut a small piece off of one to make a jewelry box for his wife. He asked the goat if he could do so, and the goat being a friendly sort agreed.  When friends saw the lovely jewelry box, everyone wanted one.  Then many people each took just a little bit of the goat’s precious horn for his or her own use.  As a result the stars no longer sing.  

For me this story conveys the essential message of Tu B’Shevat:  If we destroy it, we shall never have another one.

Jack Boshak

(In loving memory)

“Sunrise, sunset.” How quickly in retrospect the years have passed.

Jack was the brother I never had.  I was 15 when we met, and he took me under his wing.  He taught me a lot about how to act around girls, and I credit his tutelage for refining my approach enough that – years later — I could attract and win the love of someone as wonderful as Vickie.

When I first met him, I thought his name was French and would be spelled Jacques Beaushaque. It did not take me long to realize that the straightforward American way, Jack Boshak, far better suited his personality and character.

When “Chelle met Jack, her whole life changed. Almost from that day to this her life revolved around him. I marvel at the way she anticipated and took care of his every need. In turn his love for her knew no bounds through 57 years of marriage, laden with so much happiness, and yes, some tears. Most notably, Jack and ‘Chelle shared with Leah and Scott the searing pain of the death of their son Simon.

From a very young age, Jack knew the value of hard work. From selling Good Humor Ice Cream on Rockaway Beach on torrid summer days to his “business ventures” like those absurd pedal cars in the garage and the Heidi Vending machines, which he thought every candy store in New Jersey should have. I still remember visiting some of those stores with him.

Jack graduated from Rider College and passed his CPA exam on the first try.  No mean feat! 

He was a mathematical whiz, and I always marveled at his facility with numbers. I thought of him as a human calculator.

And he was a marvelous accountant.  Jack was fiercely independent; I could never imagine him being happy working for anyone else. Jack was a no-frills CPA, as symbolized by what I liked to call the “Boshak Building” that once housed his office on Route 9.

Jack had a gruff exterior — and God help you if you were a client who missed an appointment — but his heart was as tender as that of anyone I have ever known.

When Jack and ‘Chelle married I was 18, and they honored me by inviting me to be Head Usher at their wedding.  I should have been thrilled, but I was 18, immature and stupid. I thought I should be Best Man even though Jack’s older brother Howie, of blessed memory, was appropriately accorded that honor. But Jack went the extra mile to soothe my feelings and made us “co best men.”  He always had my back.

One of the very worst days of my life occurred 50 years ago when, while studying in Jerusalem, I got the news in the middle of the night that our father had died. The long flight home from Israel was exhausting and excruciatingly sad. But I still remember how the cloud began to lift when I saw Jackie waiting to greet me at Newark Airport.  I can’t describe how, but just seeing him made me feel better.

Jack’s character is best reflected through the prism of his four wonderful daughters. They are each so different. Yet Jack nurtured and understood each of them according to their unique personalities and needs.

Jack was a very proud Jew. It was who he was, and he and Rochelle infused that essence into the souls of Toby, Heather, Leah and Danna.  His daughters’ B’not Mitzvah were high points in his life.  Instead of a fancy celebration he and ‘Chelle gifted each daughter with an unforgettable trip to Israel with just her parents following her Bat Mitzvah.

A few sunrises later Paul, K. Paul and Scott became his sons.  His grandchildren, Libby, Sadye, Jocelyn, Maya, Eli, Liam and Felix were his delight. His crowning glory was the privilege and the blessing to share the joy of all of their B’nai Mitzvah celebrations. I can still see his beaming face and the tears of joy that streamed from it as he sat in the front of the three sanctuaries where these seven ceremonies took place.

Jack loved the fact that his daughters and their families remained close by as adults. Oh, it did not thrill him last year when Danna moved so far away from the family compound on Tuscarora Circle to study the behavior of large apes.  But it gave him comfort that his baby had found an outlet for her formidable intellect and considerable talents about which she is passionate. 

After these last few years of declining health, the sun has set for the last time on Jackie’s earthly journey. As a brother I worry about what will happen to Rochelle whose soul has been bound up with his for nearly sixty years. 

But I also know – for longer than anyone – how strong my sister is and that — strengthened by her wonderful daughters, sons in law and seven amazing grandchildren — she will endure. Yes, I know she will endure just as Jackie’s memory will endure in all of our hearts, for a blessing.


If They Accused You of Being Jewish, Would There Be Enough Evidence to Convict You?

When I addressed the Kristallnacht commemoration of the Sarasota-Manatee Federation in November, a couple was in the Zoom room who belonged to the first Congregation I served in Columbia, Maryland. They contacted Vickie and me, and the outdoor lunch we enjoyed together was the first time we had seen them since 1984.

As we ate, the woman shared, “I remember very few of the hundreds of sermons I have heard over the years, but I distinctly remember one of yours. You asked, ‘If they accused you of being Jewish, would there be enough evidence to convict you.’”

Flattered by and thankful for the memory jog, I remembered that I envisioned an investigator examining our homes and our lifestyles to determine whether enough about us would convince a jury that we were indeed Jews.

Some of the things the investigator would look for are: Is there Jewish art on the walls? Are there Jewish books on the shelves? Is there a connection with the Jewish community through synagogue, federation, JCC and/or Jewish charities?

Looking at our tradition, the great first century Sage, Shimon Ha Tzadik postulated the balanced tripod of Jewish living: “Al Shelosha Devarim — Upon three things the world stands`: Torah, worship and deeds of kindness and compassion.” (Pirke Avot 1;2)

Recently my friend and colleague Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin shared a modern iteration of Shimon Ha-Tzadik’s famous teaching that he learned from, Rabbi Neil Gilman, of blessed memory, renowned former Professor of Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The idea is that there are “Three H’s” of Jewish life, “Head, Heart, and Hand.” The head stands for intellectual engagement with Judaism or serious Jewish study. The Heart represents prayer, worship and liturgy, and the Hand stands for Social Justice initiatives and other acts of kindness and service to others.

Taking the analogy of a college student Rabbi Gilman’s thesis is that a “good Jew” must “Major” in one of the three H’s, and minor in another. If he or she has some familiarity with or connection to the third, so much the better.

I find the Three H model very useful as we navigate our identity as Jews in the secular world.

Fortunately, the Torah presents us with excellent role models of highly successful Jews who enjoyed high station in the secular world, but who did not forsake their Jewish identity.

Joseph and Moses, of course, lived long before there was organized Jewish learning or worship, but their “Hands” – their actions—clearly indicated the primacy of their connection to the covenant of their ancestors.

For all his success in Egypt, Joseph made his brothers swear that his ultimate resting place would not be in Egypt, but in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Moses was an Egyptian prince, but, as tradition has it, his mother Yocheved inculcated in him the Jewish Covenantal values of justice, caring and compassion which emerged when he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Later, when he had established a new life for himself as Chief Shepherd over his father in law’s vast flock, Moses could not resist God’s call to return to Egypt and take up the task of freeing his people from bondage.

These examples bid us to ask: How do our Jewish soul’s call to us? Is it through the study of our text and traditions? Is it through regular worship and participation in synagogue life? Or is it through Social Action or acts of kindness to others. If we “major in one of these, minor in another and hopefully, have some involvement with the third, then, without question if they accused us of being Jewish, there would be ample evidence to convict us.