Yosef I. Abramowitz
Shine on! (Especially during dark times...)

Tu B’Shvat and Shemitah during the Climate Crisis

 A quarter of a billion trees have been planted in the land of Israel since Herzl established the Jewish National Fund, and since the educator Zeev Yavetz began the custom of planting trees for Tu B’Shvat at the school he ran in Zichron Yaacov in 1892. Many of these trees were planted on Tu B’Shvat, the 15th day in the Hebrew month of Shvat, which became a celebration of tree-planting by the Teachers’ Union and KKL-JNF.

This Hebrew year, 5782, is a shemitah year, the sabbatical year for the land to rest, and generally there are no plantings. But we are also in a global climate crisis. President Isaac Herzog says that we are in a climate emergency, and even the National Security Council recognizes the security risk posed by the climate crisis. Energy Minister Karin Elharar declared 2022 the year of solar energy, and Prime Minister Bennett committed Israel to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

One of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions is by planting trees. So when Tu B’Shvat arrives during shemitah, and the climate crisis is hovering over us all, do we or don’t we plant trees? 

There are those for whom the answer will be very easy: we do not plant during this year. Yet we recall that on two previous occasions our sages and rabbis knew how to deal with two key characteristics of the seventh year — the erasing of debts and the ban on farming–in creative ways in light of crisis situations.  

Two thousand years ago, Hillel the Elder created the Prosbul mechanism to enable people to continue to lend money and promote economic development. This was to explicitly circumvent the words of the Torah (Deuteronomy 15,9), in light of the social situation and the need to ensure that the economic system continues to function. 

And over a century ago Rabbi Kook, out of an understanding of the need for the early pioneers to sustain themselves, and to promote establishing Jewish agriculture, supported applying the exception mechanism which allows  farming and selling of shemitah-year grown fruits and vegetables that continues to this day. 

 The crisis to which Hillel responded was socio-economic; the challenge that Rabbi Kook saw an obligation to meet was national-political as well as economic. We, today, are in a global-environmental crisis, with wide-spread economic and national implications.  Today’s climate crisis also requires shemitah creativity.

Our aim here is not to offer one halachic solution but rather to offer a few options. The main thing is to understand our Jewish and universal obligation to incorporate the ecological crisis into our Jewish identity and tradition.

Option one: The world is in such a severe crisis that these days must be regarded as the time of pikuah nefesh, saving lives in danger. Just as the prohibitions of the Sabbath are postponed when a soul at risk of death, so the prohibition of planting in the year of the shemitah should be postponed. The educational value and message of planting despite the shemitah will be perhaps the strongest declaration of our awareness to the severity of the situation – “It is time to do for God – to violate Your teaching” (Psalm 119, 126).

 Those who follow traditional shemitah practices may find it difficult to plant trees and suggest we wait until next year to plant or consider the heter for planting to fight climate change until the next sabbatical year.   But according to scientists, humanity only has about 7 years left on our climate clock before the most devastating effects of climate change hit and become irreversible. Time is not on our side to save lives from the climate crisis. Kol Haneshama, the community where Oded is the rabbi and Yosef is a member, has added a climate clock to its website and encourages other congregations to do so as well.  

There is another option: Planting seedlings in pots detached from the ground, with the intention of replanting them next year in the earth. It is truly preparing during sacred time for mundane time, from kodesh to chol, in its most positive sense.  Planting events at schools in which there will be an announcement of the commitment to replant and plant more trees the following year is an important statement that we need to prioritize climate change actions. 

Option three: Planting solar panels instead of trees – If we prefer not to plant trees, we can use Tu B’Shvat of the shemitah year to install solar panels, the best way to speed up the transition of the State of Israel to more renewable energies.  Making solar energy commitments as families, communities and organizations  is a modern expression of shemitah values and our community will around Earth Day in April begin transitioning our synagogue to be powered by the sun.   

The fourth option is based on understanding that the crisis is global and so is the way do deal with it. If we can’t act locally in this aspect, let’s act globally. We can sponsor the planting of trees where it is needed most, which is in sub-Sahara Africa across the Sahil region.  The climate crisis, like the coronavirus, is a global challenge and what happens in one part of the planet is intimately interconnected to the rest of the planet. The State of Israel and the Jewish people should during shemitah and beyond back massive tree plantings along the Great Green Wall of Africa, a stretch of 8,000 kilometers, via the United Nations.  

Thanks to Honi HaMeagel and his meeting with one person who planted carobs we learned that planting is important even if we do not eat their fruits ourselves (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ta’anit, 23a). Avraham Avinu planted an Eshel in Be’er Sheva as part of the act of settling and building the house there (Genesis 21:3). And the Holy Blessed One, too, after creating the world, did not engage in anything but in planting first – “and the Lord God planted a garden in Eden” (Genesis 2: 8). Midrash Tanchuma for Parshat Kedoshim we learned from this verse that “one should not relieve oneself from planting.” In this shemitah year, giving the land a Shabbat as in any other seventh year would be ignoring its serious condition, the challenge and our responsibility. 

We have damaged and spoiled. There is no one to come and fix after us. But we may still be able to fix it ourselves. Therefore, this shemitah, let’s not sit idly by and observe the normal shemitah laws as the climate crisis intensifies.  And this Tu B’Shvat, let’s not limit ourselves to eating the fruits of the land and singing their praises. It is our obligation to plant the fruits of our climate redemption, either with solar panels or trees here or around the world.

Rabbi Oded Mazor and family at the solar field on Kibbutz Ketura.

The above was co-authored by Rabbi Oded Mazor and Yosef Israel Abramowitz. Oded Mazor is rabbi of Kehilat Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem; Yosef Israel Abramowitz is Israel’s leading solar pioneer and can be followed @kaptainsunshine 

About the Author
Israel’s solar pioneer, Yosef Israel Abramowitz has been nominated by 12 African countries for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize and is named by CNN as one of the planet's top six Green Pioneers. Yossi serves as a leader of President Herzog's Climate Forum, co-chair of the Bedouin climate justice NGO Shamsuna, on the advisory board of DemocraTV, Hillel Israel and other groups. The winner of the Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, Yossi served on the Israeli negotiating team at the Paris Climate Conference and can be followed @Kaptainsunshine and @Officialkaptainsunshine. He is a member of the Jewish Funders Network and the Toniic Impact Investment network.
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