We All Have Reason to Rejoice at the Message and Meaning of Tu B’Shevat

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.

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.