By Rabbi Danielle Upbin
This column was written in memory of Hannah Weiss, z”l, whose commitment to a sustainable environment dare us all to live better.
While the sage Choni was walking along a road, he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” replied the man. Choni then asked: “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered: “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”
This powerful text prompts us to ask ourselves: What kind of planet do we want to leave for our children? How do our choices today impact our future, long term health and resilience of the planet? These questions are often debated in the public domain, but one may be surprised to learn of the profound and authentic contributions of Jewish thought to these matters. Over the centuries, our tradition has eloquently and creatively urged its adherents to be “environmentalists” – to be mindful of consumption and unnecessary waste, to support sustainable agriculture, to provide for the needy, and to exhibit gratitude for for what we have.
Consider another evocative text: Shimon bar Yochai taught: “if you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone says that the Messiah has drawn near, first plant the sapling, and then go and greet the Messiah.” ~Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31b
Planting a tree demonstrates our commitment to a healthy planet. Even when our long awaited spiritual redemption is at hand, we don’t forgo our personal responsibility to be partners with God. We are the dreamers, but we are also the planters. The seeds we sew will inevitably become the fruits of the next generation. Spiritual freedom is dependent on our informed choices and responsibility for one other.
Our tradition is keenly aware that our encounters with the natural world stir in us a sense of peace, wonder, and wellbeing – simple gifts bestowed upon those who are willing to accept them. Consider this passage from a mystical tradition:
“Every blade of grass sings poetry to God without ulterior motives or alien thoughts – without consideration of reward. How good and lovely it is, then, when one is able to hear this song of the grasses…” – Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav
Gently calling over a busy, loud, and over-connected society, Jewish thought invites us to do something counter-cultural like take a “tech-break” and stroll outside. We are invited to turn off the constant chatter and ‘tune-in’ to the symphony of the natural world. Imagine getting so externally and internally quiet, as to actually hear the song of the blade of grass!
There is no better gift to ourselves, to one other, and to future generations then owning our role as the true stewards of the earth that we were created to be. As the Torah states: “The Eternal One placed the human being in the Garden of Eden, to till and to tend it” (Genesis 2:15). By making some small changes to our consumption, consumerism and waste habits, we may just be able to hear that song of the grasses from our abodes!
These are just a few of the many Jewish ideas that speak to the timely subject of “conscious living” on the planet. As we celebrate the “New Year of the Trees” this month on Tu B’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat may we be inspired to go back to our Jewish roots to plant a tree, or even an entire orchard, for the benefit of future generations.
*This blog post also appears in the Jan 27th edition of the Jewish Press of Pinellas County