Time to Renew Tu B’shevat

To those who say, "God will solve the problem” of the environment, let us remember that the first thing that God gave humankind was the power and responsibility of dominion over the world.

Springtime in Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Springtime in Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is a wonderful Greek proverb: "A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit."
Two thousand years 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 cannot see the unmistakable and accelerating changes taking place in our environment and only those who are delusional deniers refuse to admit that the devastation is an immediate and 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, fastest moving geological age in the earth's long history.
Those who are unconvinced by 97% of the pre-imminent climate scientists of our age only need to use common sense. How can we fail to observe what plastic is doing to the oceans and animal life, that residents find it difficult to breathe in Delhi and Beijing, that arctic regions are quickly and irreversibly turning to temperate and temperate to desert?
Five of California's largest fires in recorded history have occurred in the past five years, water supplies are shrinking, the frequency of pediatric cancer is rising, there are increasing incidents of severe weather.
The list is long and laden with carnage.
We need look no further than our own tiny strip of land in Israel to see the ruin we have recently wrought.  Witness islands in the Kinneret, 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.
The ecosystem supporting human life is extremely brittle. We occupy a minute sliver of atmosphere barely five-kilometers high and the temperature range necessary to preserve human life is acutely narrow. 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 B’Shevat has morphed through the ages since its first citation in the Mishna around 1,700 years ago as a technical designation for calculating the age of trees for tithing.
In the Middle Ages, the date was celebrated with a feast of fruits while in the 16th century, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples instituted a Tu B’Shevat seder.
In 1890, Rabbi Ze'ev Yavetz took his students to plant trees in Zichron Yaakov. This custom was adopted later by the Jewish National Fund. Today, we celebrate with a combination of tree planting and seders of different shapes and sizes. 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 swathe of land, by pioneers and those who were inspired by them.
As the practice of the festival has changed over the ages to serve the agendas of their times, I believe that Tu B’shevat should be remodeled yet again to promote a universal awareness and call to action to protect our biosphere. Tu B’shevat can be a tool for 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 seem powerless to make a difference. This feeling is exacerbated by a political system, where those charged with managing our resources must stand for re-election every four to five years. This incentivizes policy favoring short-term benefit and long-term destruction.
But we can take responsibility for our own behavior:
  • 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 what you do eat on a reusable plate.
  • Drive a hybrid car or ride a bike and use public transport.
  • 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 will become an ocean.
Encourage imitation of your efforts. It gives me great pleasure to hear my grandson Ariel telling his mom that he would prefer using a real glass as opposed to a disposable one.
And to those who say, "God will solve the problem,” let us remember that the first thing that God gave humankind was the power and responsibility of dominion over the world.
Just as those before us utilized this festive day to further the cause of the burning concerns of their time, so must we.
How about adding to our seder, 10 environmental plagues threatening our world?
As for Ma Nishtana, we live at a time very, very different from all other times. We need to relate this truth to ourselves and our children. To the "wicked and naïve children" of the world who will not or cannot 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 as we know it if you are wrong?" And end off by singing, "Next year in a cleaner, greener Jerusalem!"
To paraphrase those ancient Greeks, our society can grow great if we all plant the seeds of a renewed, vibrant world, to bequeath to our offspring.
Looking forward to a forward-looking tu B’shevat.
 Richard Shavei-Tzion is the author of The Prayer for Preservation of the Environment.