Tu BiShvat: Judaism and the Environment


During Tu BiShvat, we focus our attention towards the environment and environmental issues. Explaining the intricate connection between Judaism and the environment, Arthur Waskow, founder and director of the Shalom Center, states that, “perhaps the most profound Jewish statement about the relationship between human beings and the earth is bound up in two words of Hebrew—Adam and Adamah. The first means “human being”; the second, “earth.” The two words are connected to teach us that human beings and the earth are intertwined” (Waskow, Torah of the Earth, p.vii). Neither the earth nor human beings run independent of each other; both are directly linked and have drastic and lasting effects on one another.

Perhaps the most commonly associated object ascribed to the environment is trees, which in many ways come to represent all of nature. Trees are special in and of themselves, but they are even more significant in the context of the ecosystems of which they are a part. Ecologically speaking, trees are at the heart of the environment. They shade the streams, keeping temperatures constant, and provide food for fishes and other aquatic creatures. They bind and build the soil. Without trees, the land is subjected to the eroding forces of wind and water; the soil blows away leaving a dry and wasted land and it runs off into streams, causing turbid, murky water, which limits plant productivity.

Trees hold a special place in the Jewish imagination. The Torah is described as a “tree of life” to those who hold it dear. The two trees in the center of the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, figure prominently in humanity’s birth story. Trees find their way into the greatest biblical love poem, the Song of Songs, that lovely evocation of a spring in which humanity at last learns how to live in loving, playful peace with all of earth as well as with each other. And in the Psalms it is written, “the righteous bloom like a date-palm; they thrive like a cedar in Lebanon; 4planted in the house of the Lord, they flourish in the courts of our God” (Psalm 92:13- 15).

As Ellen Bernstein, founder of Shomrei Adamah/Keepers of the Earth, notes, trees are the symbol of life and sustenance. In the rabbinic imagination, paradise was associated with trees: “The rabbis said that God created Paradise on the third day of Creation, the same day that God made trees and green growing things. They said that there were eighty myriads of trees in every corner of Paradise and that the Tree of Life had fifteen thousand tastes and it stood in the middle of the Garden of Eden. The rabbinic Paradise was the picture of biological diversity” (Bernstein, Land, Community and Sprawl, Torah of the Earth, p. 224). In our tradition, trees are evocative of the diversity of life, of the exuberance of life, of the dignity of life. “In their verticality, with roots reaching into the depths of the soil and branches stretching towards the sky, trees symbolize the connection of heaven and of earth” (Ibid.).

However, it is not just the trees that evoke a power in the Jewish imagination, but also the land itself. The Bible tells us, “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and dates, a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing” (Genesis 8:11).

Land is a central and basic theme of biblical faith. The land is a blessing that God promises our ancestors time after time in return for their faith and adherence to the covenant. God could give no greater gift, nor provide a greater challenge—the people were being asked to live consciously on the land in community; to live an ethical life. (Ibid.) Bernstein notes that the land was never actually the Israelites’ to own, because the land belonged to God. The land was not to be sold in perpetuity. The people were not given ownership; rather they were afforded the right to inhabit the land and use it for proper purposes, to live a way of life guided by the covenant. The land was, in a sense, alive and the people were expected to treat it sensitively (Ibid., p. 225). It is, therefore, our job as stewards of the earth and of God’s Creation to care for and be active in preservation and maintenance of the land and bounty which God provided.