Richard H. Schwartz
Vegan, climate change,and social justice activist

Lessons From Verses About Trees: a Tu Bishvat Message

Some of my most important lessons in life I learned from Jewish verses about trees.

From the following midrash (rabbinic commentary) I learned that I should be an environmental activist, working to help preserve 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)

From the following and the rabbinic commentaries on it I learned that I should avoid destruction and should conserve resources:

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 falls.  (Deuteronomy 20:19, 20)

The following message helped convince me that I should be a vegan:

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)

From the following I learned that as a Jew I should strive to serve as a positive example:

And they came to Elim, where there were 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees; and they encamped here by the waters. (Deuteronomy 15:27)  Rabeynu Bachya saw a deep message. He stated that the 12 springs represented the 12 Israeli tribes and the 70 palm trees represented the then 70 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.

From the following I learned to consider the consequences of my actions on future generations:

While the sage Choni was walking along a road, he saw an old man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “70 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.” (Ta’anis 23b)

From the following I learned how important it is to be involved in the natural world:

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).

From the following I learned the importance of acting on my knowledge and beliefs:

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

From the following I learned the importance of working for a more peaceful world:

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 has spoken.  (Micah 4:3-5)

Last, but far from least, from the following I leaned how the Torah is a guide to a happy, productive, and fulfilling life:

[The Torah is] 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)

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 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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