The holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the “new year of the trees”, is approaching once again. According to Jewish custom it is an auspicious time to eat extra fruit, especially the special fruits of the Land of Israel and praise God for giving us a land flowing with milk and honey. Many people have adopted the custom of doing a Tu B’Shvat Seder, where up to thirty different fruits are eaten, and four cups of wine consumed in an order similar to the Seder of Pesach.
As part of the Seder many people have included the Jewish view of the environment and ecology; a time to speak of not only our love of the Land of Israel but our obligation and commitment to protect and guard the beautiful world God has given us. There is an incredible body of Jewish texts that spans literally thousands of years that not only promote a concern for the environment, but also legislate that concern into practical law.
An important idea I suggest worth adding to whatever way we choose to celebrate Tu B’Shvat this year regards the growing warning to what is commonly referred to as global warming. Many people have begun to reject this term and instead are using the more realistic and alarming term “climate chaos.” Whereas a few years ago people and governments could still claim that there was not enough evidence that global warming is even a reality, this is no longer the case. Hundreds of scientific reports have already measured the disastrous effects of rising temperatures around the globe; from melting snow caps and glaciers to major changes in the temperatures of the oceans and seas. The last decade has seen a significant increase in violent and unpredictable storms around the planet as a growing momentum of chaotic climate changes intensify around the globe. As this article is being written New York and New England are enduring yet another monster snow storm.
But this may just be the beginning. If individuals, communities and governments everywhere do not make an immediate and radical paradigm shift, what we are seeing may just be the proverbial tip of the iceberg of catastrophic changes that will affect every single person on the planet in not too distant a future.
In the Torah portion of Noah, God tells him of an impending world-wide flood that will destroy humanity. Instead of pleading with God to save his generation or undertaking a major campaign to inform his peers, he instead dutifully begins work on the ark that will save him and his family and a small remnant of animals.
On one hand we all owe Noah thanks for being righteous enough for God to save at least his family, as all humanity traces their lineage back to the family of Noah; yet on the other hand the sages point out his glaring flaw of not doing enough to save his generation. When asked by the people what he was constructing he answered truthfully: “I am constructing an ark for God intends to wipe out the world with a flood.” Of course everyone was technically warned, but no one took him serious and he did nothing to change the decree or get people to change their ways in order to annul the decree.
We are now all in the same situation as Noah and his generation, as no one can really claim they were not warned, and no one can claim there was nothing we could do. We are not talking of a minor problem but a situation that literally threatens to turn the world we know upside down with horrific results that will change life on this planet forever.
Almost half of the world’s population live on coastal plains. We saw the drastic effects of Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast and Hurricane Katrina on the people of New Orleans. If the oceans begin to rise, and even more important, if the temperatures of the oceans continues to rise, what we saw in these two hurricanes could become a frequent occurrence as these changes will bring ever more violent storms. Imagine the effect on health, infrastructure and economies everywhere, let alone the loss of life. The thought is truly frightening..
Yet there is something we can do. And that something I believe is a Torah imperative. To save a life is one of the most important Torah principles and here we are talking about not only saving lives but protecting the very basis of human existence. If governments everywhere would take immediate action to curtail environmentally dangerous industries and curtail the world-wide addiction to fossil fuels, there is reason to believe we may be able to stem the tide and reverse the momentum already in progress.
As a people we have experienced the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust only 70 years ago. In retrospect, it seems clear that the writing was on the wall and Nazi intentions were not hidden at all. As each horrible step unfolded, people still did not want to believe. Even in the midst of the madness when personal testimonies to the genocide reached governments and the media in the West, even then, people turned away in disbelief, pursuing their busy private lives. We cannot allow our planet to be drastically changed by our indifference and unwillingness to speak out or act.
Alternatives to fossil fuels exist right now!!! Industry and government know how to adapt right now!!! Personal life style choices do make a difference. Each and every one of us must use their influence in their own homes, communities, states and countries to encourage and force our governments to rise to the challenge and work together to save our planet. It is not too late. Make your voice heard by supporting initiatives, organizations and leaders who will face this world-wide crises head-on and avert this growing threat.
A well-known Midrash explicitly delineates humanities role as caretaker of the planet. When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden he showed him all the beauty in nature and told him that he must be very careful to protect the Garden for if he acted rashly and destroyed it there would be no one to repair it for him (Kohelet Rabbah 7:24). In fact, the Torah explicitly states this: “And God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it” (Genesis 2:15).
Let this Tu B’shvat be a time to express our appreciation for the beautiful world God has created and as an opportunity to commit ourselves to ensuring it stays that way.