Barking up the right tree: A sustainable lesson

Barking up the right tree: A sustainable lesson

Tu B’Shevat 5772

There’s something about trees. Shel Silverstein’s classic The Giving Tree proves the point. Trees are sustenance. They provide comfort and love, even shelter. Unconditional love is what they bestow. But do we give back?

Tu B’Shevat (Feb. 8) reminds us that the movement to protect the environment did not begin with the establishment of Earth Day. It began in talmudic times, when Tu B’Shevat was recorded in Tractate Rosh Hashana as one of four important “new years” in the Jewish calendar. For the agrarian society that we once were, marking the beginning of when to plant and sow was especially important.

As farmers, we understood the land and its limitations. Even before talmudic times, environmental protection was part of our DNA. Just take a look at Abraham.

The consummate wandering Jew, he became a wealthy man. His riches lay in cattle and part of his wisdom lay in herding. When he and Lot returned from Egypt their fight was more than just a family feud. It was about the great number of flocks grazing in one place. As explained in Genesis 13:6, “But the land could not support them…,” which is why Abraham subsequently says: “Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left” (Genesis 13:9).

And so Abraham inaugurated the concept of sustainable herding, followed by another lesson in sustainability through the inauguration of the shmita year (Exodus 23:10-11). Commanding that every seven years the land take a sabbatical from planting, sowing, and plowing, the Bible seeded the concept of sustainable agriculture. Ironically, Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, reported that he planted the idea with John F. Kennedy and that it “evolved over a period of seven years starting in 1962.”

Noah first opened our eyes to biodiversity. Joseph taught us that we have to be prepared for natural disasters. Even Daylight Savings Time can beam its extended rays back to the Bible when Joshua commanded the sun to stand still in order to gain more work hours for his army.

Just like a tree trunk, which grows a new coat of wood every year to make it more viable and long lasting, so too do the numerous layers lying beneath the biblical text make the Bible relevant to each new age, turning it into the blueprint for many up-to-date causes. Ecology is just the latest.

Yes, there is something about trees. Judaism proves it. Long before Shel Silverstein penned his story, King Solomon wrote this about the Torah: “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy.” (Proverbs 3:18)

On this Tu B’Shevat, let’s take stock of our roots, our Jewish environment, and its numerous guidelines. Once we do, we will understand that as Jews, we’re barking up the right tree.

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