In 1971 the United States began observing Earth Day to remind us of our responsibility to care for our environment. More than 2000 years ago our Sages instituted Tu B’Shevat** to remind us of our responsibility to care for the environment.
Jewish tradition’s concern with how we care for this world goes back much further than that to the very beginning of the Book of Genesis. In the Story of Creation, we are created in God’s image with responsibility for the birds of the air, the creatures of the sea the fowl of the air … and over all the earth. “(Genesis 1:26)
In the next chapter God put the first humans in the Garden of Eden “to till it and to tend it.” (Genesis 2:15)
Tu B’Shevat arrives each year with a pointed question: How well are we “tilling and tending” this Garden of a Planet God has entrusted to our care. The inescapable answer is, “Not very well.”
Anthony Douglas Williams, author of Inside the Divine Pattern wrote: “We destroy life, and we pollute the oceans and skies, yet we have the audacity to call ourselves superior beings.”
In Msomi and Me: Tales of the African Bush, Brian Connell, describes the bush as: “A world that … we will never fully understand. In fact, we will never understand even a small part of it as man, in his continual quest for money is already encroaching on the wilderness, world-wide, destroying everything in his path.
‘If you don’t understand it, and you think it’s in the way, destroy it.’
The creed of modern man, and it stinks.” (Brian Connell, Msomi and Me: Tales of the African Bush, p. 227 (Kindle edition).
Upon returning from his first visit to Israel and Jordan, a Christian friend shared with me an observation that I have noted myself many times: “When we drove south from Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea along the Jordanian border, it is so stark to notice the difference between the lush vegetation on the Israeli side and the barren desert on the Jordanian side.”
It is a source of pride for me that the Land of Israel, well before its founding as a state in 1948, displayed scrupulous concern with protecting and enhancing the environment. My good friend, Rabbi Paul Citrin, writes eloquently of the work of his pet Israeli charity, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel:
During its sixty-three years of existence, SPNI has logged numerous environmental victories. Some of them are:
- On-line programs about bird migration, species preservation, guarding against environmental damage and an ethic of caring for the land.
- Creating and maintaining the national hiking trail system.
- Fighting environmentally harmful plans of hotel and road building and from polluting chemicals and encroaching on animal sanctuaries.
- Reclaiming many streams that have become polluted over the years.
- Halting the alarming shrinkage of the Dead Sea.
- Establishing field school for environmental protection to teach environmentalism and to increase love of the land.
- Creating Start Up Nature, a bold venture to reclaim and rewild abandoned agricultural spaces and transform them into a network of world class wildlife sanctuaries.
As an American I applaud the Creation of Earth Day and the environmental initiatives it has spawned. But it also makes me proud to note that the ancient and modern Land of Israel is two thousand years ahead of the United States in its creation of an ”Earth Day” Holiday with untiring efforts in its wake that have made the desert bloom.
**See MIshnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1 Tu B’Shevat is celebrated this year from the evening of February 5 to the evening of February 6.