Using Tu Bishvat to promote an environmentally better way of life

'I believe that Tu Bishvat should be remodeled yet again to promote awareness and a call to action to protect our biosphere.'

Abandoned concrete frames a tree frighting for life (photo credit: RICHARD SHAVEI-TZION)
Abandoned concrete frames a tree frighting for life
(photo credit: RICHARD SHAVEI-TZION)
There’s a wonderful Greek proverb, “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” Two millennia ago, the Greeks had the foresight and luxury of contemplating investment in our habitat as an indication of greatness. Nowadays, it is an urgent imperative for the welfare of our descendants.
Only the willfully blind do not see the unmistakable accelerating changes taking place in our environment and only those who are delusional deniers refuse to admit that the devastation is a direct cause of our abuse and over-utilization of the planet’s resources. Yes, the earth has gone through climate evolution before, but the same changes that transpired over tens of millennia are now occurring over tens of years, less than a blink of history. Nobel Laureate chemist, Paul Crutzen coined the term “Anthropocene” to designate the new, man-made, fast-moving geological age in the earth’s long history.
Those who are unconvinced by 97% of the preeminent climate scientists of our age who have confirmed the human-based decline of the environment only need to use common sense. How can we fail to observe what plastic is doing to the oceans and animal life? Residents find it difficult to breathe in Delhi and Beijing, arctic regions are turning to temperate regions and temperate to desert. Fires in the Amazon, Australia and the Russian Arctic, shrinking water supplies, the rise in frequency of pediatric cancer… the list is long and laden with carnage.
We need look no further than our own tiny strip of land. Witness the terminal condition of the Dead Sea, acidic water spills in the Judean desert, extinction of many animal species, the Evrona crude-oil pipe burst and air pollution in our cities, to name a few. There are of course bright spots in this desolate picture, the primary one being reforestation efforts.
Our magnificent planet will withstand the short destructive impact of human interference, even if it means tens or hundreds of thousands of years of recovery. But will our species survive?
THE MINOR festival of Tu Bishvat has morphed through the ages since its first citation in the Mishna around 1,700 years ago as a technical designation for calculating tree tithing. In the Middle Ages, the date was celebrated with a feast of fruits, while in the 16th century, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria of Safed and his disciples instituted a Tu Bishvat Seder. In 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz took his students to plant trees in Zichron Yaakov. Today we celebrate with a combination of tree plantings and seders. All of these activities share the commendable purpose of promoting awareness and the love of agriculture and nature in our country, much of which was transformed from desert and wasteland to a flowering, productive land.
As the practice of the festival has changed over the ages to serve the agendas of their times, I believe that Tu Bishvat should be remodeled yet again to promote awareness and a call to action to protect our biosphere. Tu Bishvat can be a tool in cultivating appreciation for the miraculous beauty and complexity of our globe, the fragility of our environment and the possibility of an enhanced world reshaped by our commitment to change.
We may feel powerless to make a difference, exacerbated by a political system, where those charged with managing our resources must stand for reelection every few years. This incentivizes policy favoring short-term benefit and long-term destruction.
But we can take responsibility for our own behavior. Yes, in this age of excessive consumerism and convenience, modifying our lifestyle takes commitment. But we all know that valuable achievements in life require effort. Here are but a few examples as to what we can do:
• Purchase prudently so as to minimize waste and utilize multi-use packaging. A couple of lemons and potatoes do not need their own nylon bags.
• Eat less red meat and put it on a reusable plate.
• Drive a hybrid car or ride a bike and use public transport.
• We are blessed with so much sunshine. Hang up the washing rather than using the dryer.
• Video conferencing and other technologies can cut down on business air travel.
• Badger your elected representatives to prioritize sustainability.
These may seem like tiny drops, but if we are united in our resolve to bequeath a healthy, viable earth to our grandchildren, the drops can become an ocean.
And to those who say, “God will solve the problem,” let us remember that the first thing that God gave humankind was the responsibility of stewardship over the world.
Just as our forbearers utilized this festive day to further the cause of the burning concerns of their time, so must we. How about adding to our Seder ten environmental plagues threatening our world? Ma Nishtana? We live at a time very different from all other times. To the “wicked and naïve children” who will not accept that climate change is a consequence of our action, answer them in true Jewish fashion with a question, “Will you take responsibility for the decline of life if you are wrong?” And end off by singing, “Next year in a cleaner, greener Jerusalem!”
Looking forward to a forward-looking Tu Bishvat!

The writer is the author of The Prayer for Preservation of the Environment.