Being the Stewards of the Earth

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2-stewardship-of-environment2We have recently become avid listeners of NPR (National Public Radio). Without a TV when we go down the shore to Wildwood, we have taken to tuning in to the radio.  Along with fun game shows like Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and the news coverage, we really enjoy many of the thought-provoking programs such as Krista Tippett’s podcast series On Being, in which she conducts interviews about the essential questions of life and meaning in the 21st century.  A few weeks ago, her episode on the connection between food justice and climate justice got me thinking about our Jewish values with regard to our responsibilities as stewards of the earth.

From the very beginning of our recorded story in the Torah, Adam is made responsible for stewardship of the earth. The Book of Genesis enjoins Adam (and therefore all of us as his descendants) “to till and to tend,” – in other words, to be the Earth’s stewards by doing everything in our power to protect and preserve it. The recent summit on climate control made the urgency of this message abundantly clear.  Our planet is at risk if each and every one of us does not take steps to ensure climate justice.  Furthermore, everything is interconnected.  As Lori Gruen (Krista Tippett’s guest) pointed out:

The connections between food and climate change are multi-directional and complex, but one thing is clear – feeding ourselves contributes to climate change and our ability to continue to feed ourselves will be significantly affected by a changing climate. Of course, we can’t stop eating, but we can evaluate the way food is produced and make personal choices and, more importantly, help to shape policies to minimize the impact food consumption has on climate change and that climate change in turn will have on access to food.

The Torah’s injunction: “justice, justice you shall pursue” applies to food and climate justice. Just as our legal system must be just, so must our energy policy also be equitable and just.  Furthermore, as one of the countries most responsible for climate change we must shoulder our responsibility for finding a solution to the problem.  We also have a moral imperative to protect the poor, vulnerable and the hungry. The poorest nations are likely to bear the brunt of the negative impacts associated with climate change.

These values are particularly pertinent as we celebrate Tu Bishevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees.  Tu BiShevat is our reminder that we are a people of social justice – that extends to all aspects of life including the environment. In Israel, school children traditionally plant trees on this day.  Many American and European Jews observe the holiday by contributing to the Jewish National Fund, which uses the funds to develop forests and the land in Israel. The holiday, however, is a very ancient one, predating the State of Israel by thousands of years.  Sixteenth century mystics observed TuBiShevat by creating a special seder largely modeled on the structure of the Passover seder.   In addition to eating fruits that symbolize different aspects of people’s personalities, participants recall the growing cycle with a special wine ceremony depicting the four seasons.  Participants are encouraged to discuss ways to become better stewards of our earth by reducing waste, making smarter consumer choices, investing in companies that do not pollute and supporting behaviors that encourage conservation.  We are reminded that as heirs to a tradition of stewardship that goes back to the Book of Genesis, it is our sacred duty to work for causes that will help alleviate environmental degradation and the human suffering it causes.  (I will be leading a Tu BiShevat seder at Beth Judah Temple in Wildwood NJ on Saturday night January 23.)

As Tu BiShevat approaches, I reflect on the words of my colleague Rabbi Lawrence Troster:

What is the purpose of a tree? A tree does not live to be a resource. It has a worth and meaning in Creation beyond our needs. And so we too have a purpose and a worth beyond our roles as producers and consumers. Is there some greater good for humanity? This question calls upon us to recognize our place in the order of creation.

I wish you a joyous and meaningful Tu BiShevat.  May it inspire us all to continue to do all we can to help care for the earth.  The importance of this value is expressed most poignantly by Rabbi Yochanan who taught: If you have a sapling in your hand and are about to plant it and someone tells you that the Messiah is coming, first plant the sapling and then go out to greet the Messiah!