With Tu Bishvat around the corner, we typically expect to see articles and activities that on the beginning of spring in Israel, or on Tu Bishvat’s origin dating back to the Mishnah, which states: “The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the words of Bet Shammai. Bet Hillel says: on the fifteenth of that month.”
And as inspiring it as it may be to interpret those words of the 2nd century and for our Israeli friends to celebrate their Jewish “Arbor Day” in the sun and warmth, we in the American diaspora are mostly shoveling our snow and staring at gray skies. In America, Spring is not yet with us, but there is a universal call in which we can share with our Israeli friends on this Tu Bishvat, the current and impending dangers of climate change as well humanity’s desperate need to care for the environment. After all, it is the interpretations of certain words in our own Torah that have led to our food shortages, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, warming oceans, rising sea levels, and more:
God said, “Let the earth bring forth every kind of living creature: cattle, creeping things, and wild beasts of every kind.” And it was so. God made wild beasts of every kind and cattle of every kind, and all kinds of creeping things of the earth. And God saw that this was good. And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” (Gen 1:24-28)
From the words “fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth” was humanity’s complex role in the Earth’s well-being born. Those who scoff at conservation and climate change read those words to mean that we are masters of the earth, We rule the animals and plants and thus we can take anything that we may deem beneficial. In other words, these words in Genesis give, according to some, license to humanity to use the earth for what we need. The argument gives humanity an inflated sense of self. Yes, God masters us, but we are told that we master the animals and plants, as a kind of “ruler.” This view was particularly popular during industrialization and paired nicely with the 19th century mindset of “manifest destiny.” It is not an exaggeration to say that these verses in our Torah were twisted and used to propel white Anglo-Saxon greed, industrialization, and thoughtless destruction of our planet.
As Jews, keepers of the Torah, it is our duty to fight back against this philosophy of privilege and tellurocracy. In the wake of overproduction, waste, and extinction that currently plagues us, the time has come to take our Torah back and teach the proper understanding. Indeed the words of Genesis 1 are ambiguous and when taken out of context were easily shifted towards an attitude of rulership. However, when paired with Genesis 2, the meaning becomes far more clear.
When the LORD God made earth and heaven— when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil, but a flow would well up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth— the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. (Gen 2:5-7)
These words tell us that humanity was created for a purpose, “to till the soil.” The words of Genesis 2 tell us that without humanity, the earth cannot be its best self, it cannot sprout because it needs a guardian, a protector, a steward of the earth. The creation story of Genesis 2 begins not with great waters (as it does in Genesis 1) but with drought. There is no rain because the partners of creation, the stewards of the earth, had yet to be created. Why then, are we told to “master” the earth? In order to take the responsibility for it, to till and tend for it, in order to create balance in our world.
As Tu Bishvat approaches, instead of romanticizing the beauty of trees in Israel, we must correct the mistakes of the past by teaching instead that God gave us life not to use the Earth, but to save it, from difficult seasons, from pestilence, and from our very selves. God did not intend for humanity to use the earth to burn carbon-based materials to the point of the Greenhouse Effect, to melt the polar ice caps, to over-hunt, overproduce, or to destroy natural habitats.
Humanity has long forgotten that we were created to be partners in creation. This Tu Bishvat, plant a tree, but also recognize the call to save our planet.