Compassion, justice and love on Tu B’Shevat

By Categories: In the Media

On the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 7, the holiday of Tu B’Shevat begins. It’s the time of year when my phone really starts to ring.

During this one-day holiday, the de-facto Jewish Earth Day, people want to hear what our tradition has to teach us about our relationship to the natural world. On this day, throughout the world, we host seders, deliver sermons and offer school programs that are designed to inspire us to become more active in solving the environmental challenges we currently face — and to remind us that our tradition calls on us to make a difference, letaken olam, to repair the world.

Tu B’Shevat teachings usually include some of the old eco-Jewish favorites: bal tashkit, the law from Deuteronomy that tells us not to be wasteful; tzar ba’alei chayim, the ancient injunction against treating animals poorly; and shmita, the law that requires us to let our land rest every seven years.

I taught these concepts during the Tu B’Shevat seders for years until I realized that introducing these unfamiliar concepts was making my job more difficult than it needed to be.

Today we live in a world in which human behavior is having an impact on the environment in ways that are causing enormous human suffering around the globe on a scale unimaginable by our ancestors. Climate change affects the lives of millions, as we pump ever more carbon into our atmosphere with each passing year. According to the United Nations, there is now more carbon in our atmosphere — due primarily to human activities — than at any time in the last 650,000 years.

The Jewish imperative to act, given the current circumstances, need not come from concepts that are unfamiliar to most people in our community. Instead, we can turn to the values considered to be the central tenets of our tradition.

At Urban Adamah, the Jewish community farm and education center in West Berkeley, we understand these tenets to be chesed (kindness), tzedek (justice) and ahava (love).

The Torah teaches: A world of compassion shall be built (Psalms 89:3). The Torah teaches: Justice, justice, you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20 ). The Torah teaches: Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Compassion, justice and love are concepts that most would identify as core Jewish values. If we give heed to what the scientific community is telling us about what we are doing to our home and to ourselves, we need to look no further than these values for the inspiration to act.

As in every generation, our challenge is to apply these values to the suffering that we find in our midst.

And yet, the link between the Jewish tradition and environmental stewardship goes beyond these primary core values. The job of the Jewish environmental educator is not only to make this link, but also to reframe timeless Jewish practices in light of current realities.

What practices I am speaking of? Here are just a few.

Shabbat, the one day a week when our tradition asks that we pause in our ceaseless activity of production and consumption. By pausing on this one day, our carbon footprints drop by one-seventh.

Kashrut. For generations, we have defined a way of eating that brings us closer to each other and to the source of our sustenance. Today we are clear about the consequences of thoughtless consumption. Redefining ethical eating is a challenge and opportunity we must embrace.

And finally, brachahs (blessings). Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Human beings will not perish for lack of information, but for lack of appreciation.” Our tradition implores us to cultivate gratitude for the abundance that is before us. In doing so, we remember that we have enough, and that we are enough, a lesson as important to solving our environmental crisis as buying a Prius.

So this Tu B’Shevat, ask yourself, “What are my core values?” and “What would my life look life if I embodied them more fully in relationship to myself, to others and to the world?”

Adam Berman is the executive director of UpStarter Urban Adamah in Berkeley.
This piece first appeared in the J-Weekly.

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