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SHVAT 5780

Tu B’Shvat – A Call to Ethical & Environmental Responsibility


Happy Rosh Chodesh Shvat!

The month of Shvat contains the minor festival of Tu B’Shvat. This literally means “The 15th of the month of Shvat” (ט״ו בשבט) which this year falls on the evening of February 9/day of February 10. In the Talmud (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1) this date is called the “New Year for Trees”, and was in essence a date in the agricultural tax calendar (the date when the agricultural cycle began for calculating biblical tithes). However, in more recent times it has become a day for ecological awareness, and also marks the start of spring in Israel when trees begin to bloom.

Environmental concern has deepened in the past year, and sadly the new decade began with the appalling fires that have caused an ecological disaster in Australia, which may have been made worse by climate change caused by human environmental negligence and apathy.

There is a strong environmental ethic in Biblical and Talmudic Judaism. Genesis 2:15 describes God creating humankind on earth “to work and protect” the world. This is arguably the earliest source describing sustainable environmentally conscious development. This theme is developed further in a much loved and quoted Talmudic story about Choni HaMe’aggel:
One day Choni was walking along the road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni said to him: After how many years will this tree bear fruit? The man replied: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Choni said to him: Are you sure you will live seventy years, that you can expect to benefit from the fruit of this tree? The man replied: I was born into a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.” (Talmud Bavli, Ta’anit 23a).

No task is more overwhelming in scale than addressing the environmental dangers facing our generation. But this must not lead to despair and resignation. Much in the same way as our work in Jewish communities is daunting and an impossible task to complete. This does not mean we are absolved from responsibility. The famous saying in the Ethics of the Fathers reminds us:

“[Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it” (Avot 2:16).
הוא היה אומר לא עליך המלאכה לגמור. ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה.
We have to do our bit, even if it only scratches the surface.

Loren Eiseley tells the following story in his essay The Star Thrower:

An old man was walking on the beach at dawn when he noticed a young man picking up starfish stranded by the retreating tide, and throwing them back into the sea one by one. He went up to him and asked him why he was doing this. The young man replied that the starfish would die if left exposed to the morning sun. ‘But the beach goes on for miles, and there are thousands of starfish. You will not be able to save them all. How can your effort make a difference?’ The young man looked at the starfish in his hand and then threw it to safety in the waves. ‘To this one’, he said, ‘it makes a difference.’

We have to make a difference, however big the task.

 

Resources

A collection of Tu B’Shvat lesson plans, interactive tools, and articles collated by The Lookstein Center at Bar Ilan University can be found here.

For Planting Hope – A Tu B’Shvat Seder, in English, French, Spanish or Russian, click here. By Keren Kayemet LeIsrael / Jewish National Fund.

What is Tu B’Shvat? resources and events (Hazon-The Jewish Lab For Sustainability)

 

Here are more Tu B’Shvat resources from The Israel Forever Foundation:

For more reading about Tu B’Shvat and for activities