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Richard H. Schwartz
Vegan, climate change,and social justice activist
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12 Jewish lessons from trees that can help heal our imperiled planet

These powerful teachings can be used in efforts to help avert a climate catastrophe and shift us onto a sustainable path
(iStock)
(iStock)

Since Tu Bishvat is considered the “Birthday for Trees,” a time when trees are to be judged regarding their fate for the coming year, I hope the following lessons, based on Jewish quotations about trees and fruits will be helpful for celebrations of this increasingly popular holiday. 

The first lesson indicates the threats to the world and the following 11 lessons indicate concepts that can help avert or reduce the threats.

Lesson 1: We have a task in the world: To be partners with God in saving the world

In the hour when the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first person, He showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)

These is a very strong scientific consensus, reinforced by many years with record breaking temperatures  and many recent severe, destructive climate events, that the world may be on the brink of an irreversible climate tipping point when climate may spin out of control, unless positive changes soon occur. The following 11 lessons from Jewish verses about trees can help avert a climate catastrophe and other potential environmental disasters.

Lesson 2: We should Consider Future Generations

While the sage Choni was walking along a road, he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” replied the man. Choni then asked: “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered: “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”

Lesson 3: Jews Should Serve as an Example, Be a Light Unto the Nations, Be God’s Witnesses, Work toward Tikkun Olam, the Healing, Repair, and Proper Transformation of the World

And they came to Elim, where were 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees; and they encamped there by the waters. (Deuteronomy 15:27) Rabeynu Bachya saw a very deep message. He stated that the 12 springs represented the 12 tribes of b’nei Yisrael and the 70 palm trees represented the 70 then nations of the world. He stated that just as the 12 springs nourished the 70 palm trees, the 12 tribes (the Jewish people) should serve to “nourish” the world by serving as a good example.

Lesson 4: Jews Should Carefully Use Resources, not waste or unnecessarily Destroy

1. When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy (lo tashchit) the trees thereof by wielding an ax against them; for you may eat of them, but you must not cut the down; for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, them you may destroy and cut down, that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until it fall. (Deuteronomy 20:19, 20)

2. It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a besieged city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they with … Not only one who cuts down trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food with destructive intent transgresses the command “you must not destroy.”  (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8,10)

3. Israel is like the date palm, of which none is wasted; its dates are for eating, its lulavim are for blessing; its fronds are for thatching; its fibers are for ropes; its webbing for sieves; its thick trunks for building – so it is with Israel, which contains no waste. (Genesis Rabbah 41)

Lesson 5: We Should Shift Toward Plant-Based Diets  

1. And God said: “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit — to you it shall be for food.” (Genesis 1:29)

2. And G-d said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit trees yielding fruit after its kind, whose seed is on the earth,” and it was so. And the earth blossomed with grass, herbs and trees, and G-d saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:9-13)

3. Also, the Messianic Period is projected to be a vegetarian time

Lesson 6: We Should Recognize How Important Our Deeds Are

Whoever has more wisdom than deeds is like a tree with many branches but few roots, and the wind shall tear him from the ground… Whoever has more deeds than wisdom is like a tree with more roots than branches, and no hurricane will uproot him from the spot. (Pirke Avot 3:17)

Lesson 7: We Should Recognise and Apply the Many Relevant Torah Teachings

1. A tree of life to those who hold fast to it, and all who cling to it find happiness. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. (Proverbs 3:17-18)

2. Happy is the man … who delights in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. (Psalms 1: 1-3)

3. Rabbi Yaakov Said: “When A Person Walks On A Journey Reviewing [A Passage Of The Torah], And Interrupts His Study To Remark: ‘How Beautiful Is This Tree! How Beautiful Is This Plowed Field!’ [The Torah] Considers It As If He Were Guilty Of A Mortal Sin.” (Pirke Avot 3:9)

4. [Judaism is a radical religion, in the best sense of ‘radical,’ with teachings that can help shift our imperilled planet onto a sustainable path.

Lesson 8: We Should Recognise God’s Concern and Imitate God’s Positive attributes, like Compassion, Concern, 

1. How can a person of flesh and blood follow God? … God, from the very beginning of creation, was occupied before all else with planting, as it is written, “And first of all [mi-kedem, usually translated as “in the East”], the Eternal God planted a Garden in Eden [Genesis 2:8] Therefore … occupy yourselves first and foremost with planting. (Leviticus Rabbah 25:3)

2. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey. (Deuteronomy 8: 7, 8)

3. The trees will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in their land. They will know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them from the hands of those who enslaved them. (Ezekiel 34:27-28)

4.. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia-tree, and the myrtle, and the olive tree; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane-tree, and the fir tree; That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the LORD hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it. (Isaiah 41:19)

Lesson 9: We Should Recognise the Importance of Trees and Work to Preserve Them

1. “When you come to the Land [of Israel], plant” (Leviticus 19:23).

God said to the Jews, “Even though you’ll find the Land filled with every sort of good, don’t say to yourself, ‘Well, since everything’s already here, we can sit back and take it easy.’ No! ‘Plant every kind of fruit tree’). Make sure you plant! Because just as you found trees planted by others, you should plant for your children.” [This reinforces the message in the story of Choni] (Midrash Tanchoma, Kedoshim 8)

2. Rabbi Shimon said, “The shade spread over us by these trees is so pleasant! We must crown this place with words of Torah.” (Zohar, 2:127a)

3. Shimon bar Yochai taught that “if you are holding a sapling in your hand, and someone says that the Messiah has drawn near, first plant the sapling, and then go and greet the Messiah.” (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31b)

Lesson 10: We Should Never Despair But Always Believe That We Can Help Make Things Better

1. God’s promise: “And I will restore my people Israel and they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them, and they shall plant vineyards and drink the wine, they shall also make gardens and eat the fruit.” (Amos 9:14)

2. “The trees of the field will give their fruit, and the land will yield its produce; My flock will be secure in their land. They will know that I am Yahweh when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them from the hands of those who enslave them. 28 They will no longer be prey for the nations, and the wild animals of the land will not consume them. They will live securely, and no one will frighten them.” (Ezekiel 34: 27, 28)

Lesson 11: We Should Work Toward a Peaceful World

1. “And He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide concerning mighty nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 

But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken.  For let all the peoples walk each one in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever.” (Micah 4:3-5)

2.As former President Dwight Eisenhower stated: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft against those who hunger and are not fed, those who are naked and not clothed.”

3. As former president John F. Kennedy stated: “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”

Lesson 12: Recognise How Important Nature Is;

1. In order to serve God, one needs access to the enjoyment of the beauties of nature – meadows full of flowers, majestic mountains, flowing rivers. For all these are essential to the spiritual development of even the holiest of people. (Rabbi Abraham ben Maimonides, cited by Rabbi David E. Stein in A Garden of Choice Fruits, Shomrei Adamah, 1991).

It is hoped that Jews will use these powerful teachings related to trees to lead efforts to help avert a climate catastrophe and other potential environmental disasters and help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path

About the Author
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet, and Mathematics and Global Survival, and over 200 articles and 25 podcasts at JewishVeg.com/schwartz. He is President Emeritus of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and President of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV). He is associate producer of the 2007 documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.” He is also a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the City University of New York.
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