Earth Day, Arbor Day and Judaism's Environmental Ethic

Beautiful mature Live Oak tree. Hampton Park, Charleston, SC.
Beautiful mature Live Oak tree. Hampton Park, Charleston, SC.

Hug a Tree! Celebrate Earth Day! No question, concern for the environment is a vital issue today and a critical one for tomorrow.

While there are many appropriate themes with which the Torah could have begun (Abraham, Mt. Sinai, etc.), it begins instead with a day-by-day description of the creation of the world, commencing with the creation of heaven and earth on Day One and concluding with the creation of humankind on Day Six.

God began the Torah with a thorough description of creation to indicate not only the work that went into the world's creation, but the love and care as well. Thus the Midrash says: "When God created the first human, He showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden ... and said to him, 'See My handiwork, how beautiful and choice they are ... be careful not to ruin and destroy my world, for if you do, there is no one to repair it'" (Midrash Rabbah, Ecclesiastes 7:13).

There is another fascinating Midrash that shows the understanding of the sages for the significant role that trees play in stabilizing our environment:

"Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai once said: 'If you have a sapling in your hand, ready to plant, and the Messiah comes, plant the tree first and then go to greet him. What does this tell us about the importance of trees?'" (Avot d' Rabbi Natan B31)

Here are some other fascinating insights about the importance of trees that are presented in Jewish literature:

The Bible sets forth as a foremost priority to care for the land by properly seeding and planting it. "When you will come into the land, and you will plant any tree for food..." (Leviticus 19:23). Planting trees is regarded as the first step to building an ecologically sound environment.

The Bible insists that newly planted trees must be properly protected so they may thrive: "For three years [the fruit] shall be restricted to you, it shall not be eaten" (Leviticus 19:23).

Even in times of war, when human lives are at stake, the Bible forbids wanton destruction. Jewish armies were strictly enjoined from destroying the fruit-bearing trees of cities under siege: "When you lay siege to a city for many days to wage war against it and capture it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them" (Deuteronomy 20:19). The rabbis warned ominously, that when a tree is harvested its cry extends from one end of the world to another! (Am Loez)

The medieval Jewish scholar, Maimonides, insists that the biblical text of Deuteronomy 20:19 refers not just to fruit trees in times of war, but to any wanton, unnecessary destruction, such as breaking vessels and blocking water sources.

Thousands of years before Earth Day or Arbor Day, Jews celebrated the 15th day of the month of Shevat (Tu BiShvat) as the New Year of trees.

Already thousands of years ago, the Bible legally required the farmer to provide sacred time for the land to regenerate itself. Just as human beings are to rest every seven days, the Bible declares: "When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath to the Eternal. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its harvest; but in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of rest to the land, a Sabbath for the eternal. You shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard" (Leviticus 25:2-4).

Biblical law also recognized the importance of preserving the natural habitat of each and every species: "You make springs gush forth in torrents, they make their way between the hills, giving drink to all the wild beasts; the wild asses slake their thirst. The birds of the sky dwell beside them and sing among the foliage. ... The trees of the L-rd drink their fill, the cedars of Lebanon, [G-d's] own planting, where birds make their nest; the stork has her home in the junipers. The high mountains are for wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the rock badgers" (Psalms 104:10-18).

The Bible taught the importance of making use of all aspects of creation. So, for instance, commenting on the description of the date palm the rabbis declare: "No part of the palm tree is wasted. The dates are for eating; the Lulav branches are for waving in praise on Sukkot; the dried thatch is for roofing; the fibers are for ropes; the leaves are for sieves; and the trunk is for house beams" (Numbers Rabbah 3:1).

The environment is sustained by trees, which cleanse the air and stabilize the earth, and the references in Jewish sources to the importance of protecting them are meant to be guidelines for caring for the planet in general. This week, as Americans celebrate both Earth Day (April 22) and Arbor Day (April 26, the final Friday in April), is an excellent opportunity to strengthen our individual roles as guardians of the earth by supporting environmental initiatives, planting trees or even tending a private garden.