New Year’s Day is almost here. Time is running out for us to decide on our resolutions for the next 13 months.
I am not referring to the secular New Year, or to our own Rosh Hashanah. Rather, I am referring to Rosh Hashanah L’ilanot, “the New Year for Trees,” Tu B’Shevat, meaning the 15th of Shevat. It begins at sundown on Sunday evening, January 16.
Before we can make resolutions that are meaningful to this day, though, we need to understand why the day even exists. The simple answer is that trees are Judaism’s ultimate symbol of life itself.
Trees are one of the first things God created on our planet, as Genesis 1-2 tell it. After human beings were created, God set up the Garden of Eden and filled it with “every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food.” God then commanded us humans to “till [the earth] and tend it”; in other words, to be its stewards, not its destroyers.
A wonderfully relevant midrash—Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1—has God taking the First Human “around all the trees” of the garden. God then said to the human: “Be careful not to ruin or destroy My world, for if you ruin it, there is no one after you who can repair it.”
The Torah, in Deuteronomy 20:19-20, and our Sages of Blessed Memory made the tree the symbol of anything that has usefulness for anyone or anything:
Says Deuteronomy, “In your war against the city, do not destroy its food-bearing trees…for from them you will eat…, for is the tree of the field a person that it can escape from you into the besieged town? Only that tree that you know is not one that gives food, that one you may destroy and cut down in order to construct your war machines.”
This commandment, this mitzvah, revolves around a rhetorical question: Can a tree defend itself from being attacked? Trees cannot defend themselves. The commandment then makes clear that it pertains to trees that produce food—for every creature, human or otherwise. Even if a catapult or a battering ram is needed to break down the gates of a town, for example, that is not a valid reason to destroy something that produces food.
If there is a sufficient, valid reason to cut down trees, however, only that tree “that you know is not one that gives food” may be cut down. We must know this for certain. The absence of food itself proves nothing, because it may not be the right season for what that tree produces. We must be absolutely sure that the tree never produces food at any time during the year.
Producing food, however, is only part of the equation. If a tree is useful in any way, it is also protected by this commandment. Trees are not only useful, but vital, to our world.
• Trees help clean the air we breathe by absorbing such harmful pollutants and gases as nitrogen oxides, ozone, and carbon monoxide. A mature tree can absorb an average of 22 pounds of carbon dioxide per year.
• Trees help cool the planet, which is desperately in need of cooling. Scientists predict that average surface temperatures on Earth could rise catastrophically between 35 degrees to 46 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. Among other consequences, the ice caps will melt, waterways will dry up, and plants will disappear, as will various species of animals, birds and insects on which we depend.
• Trees, because their root systems, also help reduce the risk of such natural disasters as floods and landslides. A mature evergreen tree, for example, can trap nearly 4,000 gallons of water every year.
In other words, all trees produce “food” and are protected.
By extension, our Sages used the “tree of the field” mitzvah to create an entire category of Jewish law known as Bal Tashchit, which means do not destroy.
As often stated in this space, Bal Tashchit is a ban on the pointless and purposeless destruction of anything that is useful to living creatures of any kind, be they human, animal, avian, or aquatic, or even plants. Just as trees cannot defend themselves, neither can flowers and plants, oceans and seas, rivers, lakes and ponds defend themselves. All inanimate life forms are covered by this mitzvah, because all are as much a part of God’s creation as we are. They are to be protected, not rejected and destroyed. That makes defending them our job. That is what really is being said in Deuteronomy 20:19-20.
Recycling is not a modern concept. A 14th century rabbi, Aharon Halevi of Barcelona, said of “the pious” that they “would not even destroy a grain of mustard, and they are saddened by any destruction they may see. If it is possible to save anything that is being spoiled, the pious spare no effort to do so.” There is no need for mental gymnastics to see in this a nearly 700-year-old mandate to recycle. The pious spare no effort to save anything that is being spoiled, and neither should we. In other words, we should recycle.
The “tree of the field” commandment also carries with it two implied positive commandments—to replace trees that are destroyed and to add trees to the environment.
Apropos of this, the Talmud (BT Taanit 23a) tells us of an incident in the life of the wonder-working sage Choni the Circle Drawer. One day, Choni came upon a man planting some carob trees. He asked the man how long it would take for the trees to produce its carobs. “Seventy years,” said the man. Choni then asked whether he thought he would live long enough to enjoy those carobs. He was not planting them for himself, the man replied. “I myself found a world filled with carob trees. They were planted for me by my ancestors, and now I am planting trees for my descendants.”
Back to the importance of trees. According to a 2017 Climate Science Special Report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, if global warming remains unchecked, it will cause “potentially large and irreversible” damage to the planet, thereby threatening all life on Earth. As noted, trees are a major part of our defense against global warming.
That defense mechanism, however, is under attack today, seriously contributing to global warming and climate change. Planned deforestation and ever-intensifying forest fires are taking their toll. Deforestation alone is estimated to be responsible for 20 percent of the carbon emissions in the world today, significantly contributing to global warming. This could “lead to an atmospheric concentration not experienced in tens to hundreds of millions of years,” according to the CSSR. (See the report at science2017.globalchange.gov.)
Celebrating Tu B’Shevat is very relevant today, so long as during the rest of the “year of trees” we take Bal Tashchit seriously and do what we it requires to do. Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability offers many resources for how to celebrate a modernly relevant Tu B’Shevat, including hosting a special Tu B’Shevat seder. These are available at hazon.org/commit-to-change/holidays/tu-bshvat/.
As for those New Year Resolutions, they should include a commitment to recycle and to avoid products that are not recyclable, to plant trees wherever possible, to fight the unnecessary destroying of trees, and to educate ourselves in the various ways we can help save our planet.
This being a congressional election year, we should also resolve to demand that our elected officials act effectively to fight climate change. An ambitious set of climate change proposals is stalled in the Senate, with all Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, firmly opposed. Manchin has built his career on fighting any such laws. As news reports note, he and his family likely would take a heavy hit financially if those laws were enacted.
On Monday, January 17, celebrate Tu B’Shevat by doing something new and constructive for our environment, such as collecting all the plastic shopping bags in the house and bringing them to your local supermarket for recycling. Then resolve to make that new and constructive something a recurring activity. Also, consider donating to such Jewish environmental activist groups as Hazon, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Aytzim, and Canfei Nesharim, and buy a tree in Israel, as well.
The primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall recently said, “If we get together, if each one of us does what we can to make a difference every day, we start moving away from the doom and gloom. Have we got time? Is the window big enough? It’s still closing. We’ve got to prop it open and give nature a chance.” Consider listening to her podcast, or one of the other excellent ones now available.
This is God’s world, not ours. We are but its stewards. As the midrash quotes God as saying, “Be careful not to ruin and destroy My world, for if you ruin it, there is no one after you who can repair it.”
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.