Let’s begin by discussing what Tu B’Shevat is and what it is not. Tu B’Shevat is a legal demarcation point in the Jewish calendar. Its sole purpose and relevance, as brought down in the mishna (R”H 1:1), is to help define which of a fruit tree’s fruits may be eaten and by whom. This is relevant to the mitzvot of orlah, netah revai, bikurim, terumot and maasrot, among others, and is therefore a highly significant date in Israel’s historically agrarian society. While there is a slight disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai on the actual date of this new year for trees, the gemara (R”H 14a) explains that the date was chosen, based on the time when the majority of rains have fallen during an average year. Thus, Tu B’Shevat is an important legal boundary that helps us decide how we may partake of the fruit G-d provides us annually from trees that do not have to be replanted.
Now let’s quickly discuss what Tu B’Shevat is not. Tu B’Shevat is not a special day set aside to thank G-d for providing us with fruit trees, or any trees for that matter. Each of the three pilgrimage festivals actually has an agricultural component that includes gratitude for a specific type of produce. On Sukkot we celebrate and thank G-d for the rains He provides to sustain our trees and fields. During Pesach and the Omer period, we thank G-d for the grains He provides. Meanwhile, Shavuot, which is also referred to as Yom HaBikkurim is the specific holiday designated by G-d to thank Him for the fruits that come from the trees He provided. In fact, in Deuteronomy 26, we are even prescribed the words to say in thanking G-d for these fruits when we go to Jerusalem on Shavuot. This recitation includes a thank you for taking us out of Egypt and for giving us a land of milk and honey, but ironically does not even mention fruit trees at all. The recitation ends with a command to be happy with the abundance provided by G-d for us to share with not only with our families, but also with the Leviim and the landless who live among us.
The practice of not saying tachanun or fasting on Tu B’Shevat only developed late in the period of the Rishonim. It is clear from the Rema’s comment on the Shulchan Aruch (O”H 772:3) that this practice had much less significance than it did on other important days like Rosh Chodesh or Chanukah. The celebrations and seders to celebrate fruits during this period developed even later in the 17th century. Thus, the original rabbinic demarcation of Tu B’Shevat is not a celebration of all of nature, nor is it about trees, nor even is it a day of thanks for fruit from the trees.Tu B’Shevat is a legal change-of-status date chosen for the technical reason that it is the halfway point of the rainy season. Interestingly, Hillel’s chosen date is also the halfway point between the beginning of Tevet, representing the winter solstice, and the beginning of Nissan, representing the spring equinox.
With that background, I think we can safely say that Tu B’Shevat was never intended to be a celebration of a pure nature, untainted by man. And yet somehow, this day has been claimed by Jews of all denominations as a religious version of Earth Day, thereby representing something far distant from its original legal purpose. Furthermore, Tu B’Shevat has become a soapbox from which to justify philosophies and actions that are foreign, if not antithetical, to classic Jewish theology.
The five books of Torah given to us by Moshe largely deal with the relationship between G-d, the Children of Israel, and the land of Israel. G-d and man’s relationship with nature though is only dealt with to a small extent in the creation and flood stories of the book of Genesis. On the 6th day of creation, G-d specifies that the growth from the ground and the trees is provided specifically for the sustenance of man and animals. With the creation of the Garden of Eden, G-d places man in the garden “leovdah u’leshomrah” – to work it and guard it, specifically referring to the garden itself. After being evicted from the garden, any idyllic relationship between man and nature that may have existed in Eden, including man’s instructions to guard it, seems to be removed. This is demonstrated by G-d’s words to Adam after his eviction: “By toil you shall eat from it all of the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat” (2:17-19). Whatever the natural environment was supposed to be in Eden, outside of it is now a tough challenging setting to be worked upon and improved by man so he can make use of it.
The specific mention of bread for the first time after leaving the garden, in contrast to the fruits of the trees referenced in Gan Eden, brings to mind the famous discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus in the Midrash Tanchuma. When challenged as to why there is a commandment to circumcise one’s son if G-d had created a perfect body, “Rabbi Akiva brought Turnus Rufus grains of wheat and some bread, and said, ‘These grains of wheat are God’s handiwork, and the bread is the handiwork of man. Is the latter not greater than the former?’” In both the circumstance of bread and circumcision, man is expected to take the resources provided by nature and improve upon them. This concept is a central tenet of Jewish philosophy that pervades all aspects of Jewish legal doctrine, both between man and man as well as man and G-d. The natural environment made by G-d provides the resources for man to build upon. Man is expected to use these resources in order to take care of ourselves and those in need, as well as to create religious structures,like the tabernacle, to worship G-d.
Another set of instructions is given to Noah after the story of the flood, at which point man’s relationship with nature seems to change even further. When Lemech chooses to name his son Noah, it is with the prayer that man can return to the period prior to Adam’s eviction from Eden, in which nature, in its raw state, provided man with his sustenance, with no extra work required. After the flood, however, G-d declares, “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.” Thus, not only are the plants available for man to use as a resource for sustenance, but man is expected to master and use the animals as well. This unfinished version of the world is one that is not an idyllic utopia, but rather untamed, and therefore requires mastery and control by mankind in order to make it not only livable, but productive.
In his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein summarizes this concept well when describing the modern climate alarmist movement: “[this movement] looks at man as a destructive force for climate livability, one who makes the climate dangerous because we use fossil fuels. In fact, the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability.”
The politicized science of climate change is not a simple or straightforward field. Despite many public claims, there is no such thing as settled science, and there remains much disagreement between scientists who focus on forecasting future climate scenarios and those who study Earth’s historic climate. While I personally have not seen any convincing full raw data set that demonstrates a strong correlation between increased anthropologically generated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and increased warming, I understand and respect that there are some with more experience than I in this field who believe that this correlation does exist.
However, even with the claim that carbon dioxide does cause some warming, it is highly disconcerting to recommend through a religious lens that we should reduce our reliance on carbon based fuels. One only has to briefly ponder how civilization has progressed by industrialization over the past century to realize that as a whole, we are fulfilling the challenge posed by G-d to Adam and Noah so many years ago. Until 200 years ago, the bulk of man’s productive time was devoted to providing basic human needs for his family, and once the sun set, man simply rested and waited until the following morning to continue working the fields for that purpose. In the current era of the 40 hour work week, we cannot fully appreciate the novelty and importance of the Torah mandated periods of rest, and how farmers truly worried around the clock about keeping their crops and flocks safe from predators, disease or disaster.
Coal, natural gas and oil, often referred to as ‘fossil fuels” have provided modern civilization with reliable, affordable and transportable access to energy in a way that has made life infinitely easier for all developed societies. Currently, a single farmer armed with modern pesticides and a well equipped tractor can plow, plant, maintain, irrigate , reap, bale and harvest enough land to feed thousands and still have time in the evenings in his temperature controlled well-lit abode, to study any subject on Earth from the comfort of his own technologically connected desk. This readily available energy has freed up human productivity to solve and address all of mankind’s problems. From medical advancements and space exploration, to financing the modern company which employs the majority of people in the developed world – all of this is only now possible with the cheap reliable energy afforded to us by ‘fossil fuels’, freeing us from spending all of our personal time and energy on simply creating food and clothing. While “renewable” energy sources, such as solar and wind, have recently become popular, they cannot come close to matching the reliability, affordability, transportability and limited environmental impact of oil, gas and coal.
While many modern prophets myopically warn of increasing climate driven disasters, few pay attention to the decreasing fatalities caused by what are, in fact, inevitable natural disasters. In previous centuries, floods, wildfires, heat waves, earthquakes and hurricanes would kill millions on an annual basis, but we now have the ability to keep human impact from such disasters to a minimum. Worldwide deaths from natural disasters per 100,000 people have plummeted to infinitesimal levels because of, not despite, increased industrialization. When hurricanes are forecasted to make landfall, hundreds of thousands of individuals can be evacuated with a day’s notice from heavy impact areas using modern fossil fueled transportation. After disaster strikes, worldwide shipping and delivery networks can deliver supplies to the needy within hours. Pop-up hospitals have been mobilized to begin treating patients within 24 hours of impact. Rescue crews from around the world can be flown in at a moment’s notice to search for and assist those who are trapped or missing. All of this is only possible with inexpensive energy and materials supplied by oil and gas, and the productivity of people who would otherwise not be able to leave their own fields behind.
Historically, the two largest causes of mass death and downfall of empires were disease and famine. The Black plague laid waste to the entire continent of Europe and as recently as World War I, the Spanish Flu was believed to have killed between 50 and 100 million people, significantly more than the actual war itself. Despite the invention of the smallpox vaccine in 1800, it is estimated that 300 million people nonetheless died worldwide from smallpox in the 20th century. In contrast, with an ever growing population in the 21st century,it is rare that a global disease death toll reaches the thousands, especially in developed regions. Modern hospitals and mass medicine manufacturing techniques supported by consistent reliable energy sources play a big part in this health revolution. Similarly, historic famines laid waste to entire civilizations like the ancient Mayans and Assyrians. More recently, tens of millions died in the Asian famines of the mid-20th century. Yet, less than .0005% of the global population has died due to famine over the entire previous decade. Modern desalination driven by affordable natural gas, global food distribution networks driven by modern transportation, and more efficient irrigation, fertilization and pesticide techniques have all played a part in making sure a consistent reliable food and water supply can be provided to all people worldwide, despite local conditions.
One of the most important innovations that has caused these reductions in death due to disease and famine is plastic. Indeed, the most criticized attribute of plastic, that it is not biodegradable, is actually one of its most important design features. Patented a century ago, plastic is created by strengthening the carbon bonds of organic materials to be impossible for microbes to penetrate or consume. This hygienic attribute makes plastic a landmark material that allows us to cheaply and efficiently preserve and store food with minimal concern for degradation or rot from bacteria. This allows the food supply chain to span the globe, allowing basic necessities to be shipped worldwide, and exotic foods to be available anywhere on the planet. Similarly, the ability to use a inexpensive, widely available byproduct of the energy industry to keep medicines, post-op patients or newborn infants safe from disease carrying bacteria has helped decrease child mortality rates from 46% to under 5% worldwide and helped increase average life expectancy from 29 years to over 70. Plastic has become so common, allowing anyone to simply print any durable, high-strength, hygienic object of their choosing at the press of a button, that we don’t realize how dependent we are on it. In addition to its contribution to medicine and nutrition, it has become a key ingredient in affordable clothing, housing, transportation, electronics and almost everything else at a fraction of the cost of other heavier non-biodegradable or materials that would be used in its stead, such as metals, glass, cement and pottery. Additionally, as long as it is disposed of appropriately in a landfill that will eventually be capped and covered by a golf course or a community park, studies have shown that plastic is not only cheaper and more efficient but also has significantly less impact on the environment than less efficient organic ‘renewable’ alternatives like wood, paper, cardboard or cotton.
Finally, two factors often ignored in the discussion of the causal relationship between increased carbon dioxide and climate effects are the benefits of carbon dioxide and the Earth’s dynamic response to change. From the optimist’s perspective, the re-introduction of previously sequestered hydrocarbons from the carbon cycle may actually serve as a net benefit for the continued proliferation of mankind on our planet, leading to a carbon-rich fertile environment which increases photo-synthesizing plant life worldwide. Indeed, the term ‘greenhouse gas’ originates from the idea that carbon dioxide is commonly pumped into greenhouses to increase plant yields which generally provide the building blocks and energy sources for all other life on Earth. Additionally, the world’s geologic history is rife with major catastrophic events and climatic changes, and yet overall, the average temperature over those eons has barely fluctuated as compared to other planets. Indeed, it is clear that G-d created and provided us a world for our use, which dynamically adjusts to nature’s chaotic conditions, always keeping the Earth’s climate as a whole in a range acceptable for life. Whether its periodic El Ninos to stifle overcooling in the winter, increased cloud cover to counteract heat from solar cycles, or a self-repairing ozone layer, G-d’s promise to Noah after the flood rings true when viewing the Earth’s climate as a whole: “So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22)
The concept that nature’s raw, chaotic temperament should be praiseworthy or worshipped is pagan in nature, reminiscent of the worshipping of the Caananite Ashera tree, or the Philistine’s grain idol, Dagan. Viewing having children, and population growth as an evil that must be addressed to preserve the natural order is reminiscent of the Caananite’s Molech, or the Aztec’s Tlaloc, to whom children were sacrificed so as to appease the natural spirits. G-d’s directive, as outlined in Genesis, is the antithesis of this pagan prioritization. G-d provided us with the ‘thistle and thorn’ of nature for us to learn to master, work and use for the benefit of mankind, thereby bringing praise to the Creator. Affordable, reliable energy, which provides affordable food, clothing and medicine to billions of people around the world, represents the modern culmination of G-d’s directive to master nature. Technologies like plastic, which have played a part in humanity’s unprecedented 20th century growth and preservation should be appreciated, if not venerated, by a religion and nation that prioritizes man’s growth and development above the natural order. By no means should we be wasteful, but as a modern civilization we should only be proud of what we have accomplished with the means provided to us by G-d’s Earth. As such, in preparation for Tu B’Shevat this year, I ask you all to consider that its message is not to demonize those who generate or derive benefit from natural resources, but rather it is to appreciate the literal and figurative fruits of the world that G-d has given us, as we strive to use them for the genuine benefit of mankind.