Contemplating Earth-focused Judaism: Should we plant trees on Tu B’Shevat?

Rabbi Gila Caine is the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Ora, Edmoton's Reform Jewish Congregation.

by Rabbi Gila Caine

(Edmonton) – In honor of Tu B’Shevat, I’m going to point us in the direction of  “Forest gardens”  which is an alternative, tree affirming agriculture. Adding a layer to that, I’d like to introduce you to the “Shmita network” and to ways in which many contemporary Jews are reconnecting to the ancient practice of Shmita, out of respect and care for our land (be it Canada, Israel or Australia).

Let’s begin by stating the obvious – I’m not a farmer, and so cannot speak to the experience of farmers, here or elsewhere. But I am a rabbi, a mother, a human living on Earth, and so – I must make my voice heard and use all my creativity and care, so future generations have a livable world to enjoy.

On Tu B’Shevat we celebrate our connection to trees and notice our dependence on their fruit. This celebration has taken on many forms over the generations, and some key elements that have prevailed are a ritual eating of fruit and, where it makes sense and is timely, by planting saplings.

I would like us to focus on this practice of planting new trees, and ask ourselves, at this time – what is more urgent: planting new trees or protecting older trees from being cut down. This isn’t an either/or situation and of course we must do both. But what is more urgent?

“Humans have been cutting down forests for thousands of years, practically since they invented agriculture,” write the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Although forests themselves can be a source of many kinds of foods and useful products, fundamentally forests and agriculture are in conflict since, in many parts of the world, trees must be cleared to grow crops or graze livestock.”   (From: What is driving Deforestation today?)

We are currently cutting down trees to make room for agriculture at a faster pace than any previous time in human history. Our needs are great and so is our hunger, and nothing seems able to stand in our way of gaining more tree-free land for our food and cattle (which are also our food). And on the other end, we are planting so many millions of trees, as a form of compensation for the trees we are cutting down, and out of a hope and belief that these baby saplings will help us reduce the levels of carbon in our air.

But that’s not exactly how it works.

Not all trees capture carbon in the same way, and trees in tropical regions apparently capture carbon more efficiently than those in more temperate climates. And, returning here to Tu B’Shevat and to our tree-planting efforts – trees must be mature in order to arrive at their best carbon-capturing abilities. Baby trees are not as strong at this job as adult trees are.

So, for this and for many other reasons, most environmental thinking nowadays urges us to act towards protecting trees we already have, before spending time and money on planting new one.

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?  (Deuteronomy 20:19)  

Trees cannot run away from us, and even in times of war and great need we are commanded to protect them. This often-quoted verse from Torah reminds us, once again, to pause before acting, and to know that not all the world is ours to use. This is a basic Jewish understanding of our relationship with the world and lies at the very foundations of our definition for what makes something Kosher.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ḥananya recalls in the Talmud, how he had only ever been defeated in argument by a woman, a young boy and a girl. Here is the story of his encounter with the girl:

“One time I was walking along the path, and the path passed through a field, and I was walking on it. A certain young girl said to me: My Rabbi, isn’t this a field? [One should not walk through a field, so as not to damage the crops growing there.] I said to her: Isn’t it a well-trodden path [in the field, across which one is permitted to walk?] She said to me: Robbers like you have trodden it.” (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 53:b)

Our current behavior of over – consumption has trodden proverbial and actual paths in the forests. And since we’ve been doing it for so long and in so many places, it seems like the paths have always been there. But the fields of our world are growing thinner, and the flat trodden paths wider, and we are behaving like robbers.

And no number of trees we might plant will help replace the trees we are cutting down.

Looking on the bright side, I know and believe that we humans are better than that, and that like Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya, we can pause and notice our actions in this world.  And stop.

Two things we can research when we stop and think this year on Tu B’Shevat:

Forest gardens: The practice of planting fruit and nut trees together with various vines, vegetables and other beneficial plants is not a new one. This is what forests look like, and humans probably knew long ago how to re-create eco-systems where a variety of plants supported each other in growth. In the 1980s this system was redeveloped and adapted for temperate climates, so that people in many places could enjoy a sustainable form of agriculture. Even here in Edmonton we have groups working at developing local forest gardens, for the benefit of all of us who live up here.

Our need to eat and be nourished is as important as any other living creature on earth, and by finding sustainable and respectful ways of doing so we are living better human lives, and better Jewish lives. If this catches your imagination, I encourage you to go and research forest garden, and see what you can implement in your own life. The trees will thank you.

Which leads me to the Shmita Network: One thing I can learn from trees is to take things slowly, and to periodically stop growing. To just be.

Torah is the Tree of life, and from that tree I also learn about periodically resting – we do this every Shabbat, on the seventh day of the week, and the Earth should be doing this every seventh year, on the Shmita. Originally Shmita took place only within the land of Israel, but in the past decade (ever since the previous Shmita year and leading up to the next one in 2022) – Jews all over the world are working on making Shmita happen in other places as well.

We gave the gift of Shabbat to the world, thus making human life better, and now we are ready to teach ourselves and others about Shmita thereby helping to heal our Earth.  Some of us at Temple Beth Ora are starting to learn and explore this, and I would like to invite anyone from within our Jewish community, who might be interested in learning about Shmita and what that might mean in Alberta, to join us.

May this Tu B’Shevat help us reconnect to trees around us and to our Tree of Life.

Rabbi Gila Caine is the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Ora, Edmonton’s Reform Jewish congregation.  This is the second of a series by Rabbi Caine on Earth focused Judaism. Click here for the first installment. 

 

 

 

 

 

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