This coming Saturday, we will celebrate the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, otherwise known as the “New Year for the Trees.” According to the Mishnah, this is one of four Jewish New Year celebrations, each celebrating a different part of our extended family: one, celebrating the birth of the Jewish people (the first of Nisan); one, celebrating the creation of all humanity (Rosh Hashanah); one, celebrating the creation of all animals; and one celebrating the creation of the rest of the natural world (Tu B’Shvat). Fellow Jews are our brothers and sisters; non-Jews are our cousins; and plants and animals are our slightly more distant relatives. We celebrate the creation of all of them.
That our tradition has a holiday focused on acknowledging and celebrating trees, as well as other components of the natural world, demonstrates the importance Judaism places on our commitments to the environment.
According to our tradition, God calls on human beings to be caretakers of the Earth as well as all living things. The Torah reminds us that this is God’s world, not ours. The Earth is more than the dirt on which we walk and its non-human residents are more than mere mobile sources of protein, entertainment, or danger. We literally dwell on holy ground, and share this admat kodesh with our holy family and all living things. Leaving a beautiful and hospitable planet to our descendents, and to our non-human cousins, is therefore, a mitzvah of the highest order. God has entrusted us “to till and to tend” this beautiful garden (Genesis 2:15) and God commands us to be responsible stewards of our planet.
It is true that God permits us to take from this world and benefit ourselves, to “fill the world and master it” (Genesis 1:28). Human needs take precedence over the needs of the natural world and its non-human inhabitants. We have a right to live, thrive, and utilize the planet according to our needs.
However, if we are only concerned about our own profit and not the health of the planet, there will be no world left from which to benefit – or no humans left to benefit from the world. “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, then what am I?”
Thus, the critical human and Jewish challenge of our age is whether or not we can learn how to utilize our world’s precious resources without destroying our planet and, in the process, determine whether or not we are able to justify the trust that God has placed in us.
This Tu B’Shvat I invite you to consider the ways in which you can minimize your impact on our planet, as well as the ways you can work toward its physical health. Together, we can fulfill our sacred charge to leave a beautiful and hospitable planet both to our human and non-human descendants.