Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said, “If, while holding a sapling in your hand you are told that the Messiah is about to arrive, first plant the sapling and then go out to receive the Messiah.” Much is written in the Torah and the Talmud about trees, and we read even more carefully about them his month when we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees.
Then what do Jews and Judaism have to say about nature the rest of the year? Rabbi David Wolpe said, “Appreciating beauty is an act of devotion.” Humanity, he reminds us, began in a garden. The first of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, Genesis 1:28, commands us: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth.” So, are we to exploit what we have been given?
Rabbi Joshua Kullock of West End Synagogue says that the Torah teaches us to be good stewards of the earth. During war we are enjoined from salting the enemies’ fields or cutting down fruit trees. He referred to Rabbah 7:13 when G-d was giving Adam and Eve a garden tour and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”
Rabbi Kullock also referred to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said we should live our life in “radical amazement,” and to “get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.”
Rabbi Laurie Rice of Congregation Micah pointed out the wisdom in Talmud regarding not mixing seeds and species. She also said there is something valuable in the laws of Shmitta which mandate letting agricultural lands lie fallow every seventh year. Modern farmers have learned that keeping soil fallow can restore microbial diversity and increase organic matter.
Rabbi Rice mentioned Rabbi Arthur Green who some refer to as a Jewish eco-warrior. He did not consider himself to be a biblical literalist, though he did say that Genesis or the Psalms’ “magnificent hymns to Creation” were “essential to my spiritual life, binding it inexorably to my loving concern for the fate of this planet and those who dwell upon it, and hence calling me to environmental activism.”
Sherith Israel’s Rabbi Saul Strosberg, like Rabbis Rice and Kullock, mentioned that we need to find nuance. Modern Orthodoxy’s world view of Torah U’Maddah (being rooted in Torah while engaged in secular knowledge) can help us find a balance. He said this means we can help take care of the earth, but we will not light fewer Chanukah candles as one group of Jewish environmentalists suggested. He then brought up how spiritual many people felt having minyanim outside during Covid lockdowns. No wonder the Talmud tells us we shouldn’t pray in a room without windows.
Rabbi Shana Goldstein Mackler of the Temple noted that Jewish holidays are tied to seasons and cycles which attune us to the earth. She referred to the blessings in the Amidah which are changed at Passover and Shemini Atzeret. We replace “Mashiv HaRuach u'Morid haGeshem, ("Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall") with Morid haTal ("Who brings down dew.) And vice versa. Rabbi Mackler notes that we don’t ask for miracles or more than we need, simply that we get what is required in due season.
On Shabbat we are commanded to rest just as G-d rested from the work of creation, and Rabbi Mackler cited Rabbi Heschel who said that six days a week we try to dominate the world, but on the seventh day
we must not. When we are out of balance with the earth, Rabbi Mackler continued, we suffer from crises like global climate change.
Rami Shapiro of MTSU, in his book “Judaism Without Tribalism” celebrates Tu B’Shevat by sitting outside near a tree and contemplating philosopher Martin Buber’s words on an I- Thou relationship as it pertains to a tree. One will have a self-awareness that “sees itself as a part of the larger world and seeks to engage with the world as a blessing.”
We have a blessing that includes “ma’aseh bereisheet” (creating the world anew) when we see lightning, thunder, or a comet. When we view the sea or an ocean for the first time in thirty days we bless G-d who “made the great sea.” If we pray where there are windows, if we go to the sea and say a blessing, if we live a life of radical amazement, we can be diligent both as Jews and stewards of the earth.
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