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Torah, Trees and Caring for the Earth

Torah, Trees and Caring for the Earth

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The Torah is called a “tree of life,”1 showing how trees connect to the highest Jewish values. Trees also symbolize a healthy and sustainable environment.

The Torah is called a “tree of life.”

“When G‑d created the first man, He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.’”2

This midrash singles out the trees of the Garden of Eden—rather than the Garden itself—to represent the natural world G‑d created and the imperative to not destroy it.

Trees also symbolize the necessary environment for human life when the Jewish people enter the land of Israel. Encouraging us to emulate G‑d, the Midrash teaches:

“It is said, ‘Follow the Lord, your G‑d.’3 This means: follow His example. When He created the world, His first action was to plant trees, as it written, ‘And G‑d planted a garden [of trees] in Eden.’4 So you, too, when you will enter the land of Israel, planting trees should be your first involvement.”5

Destroying trees is understood by our sages to encompass the entire range of needless destruction.

There are numerous other essential elements for human beings in a healthy environment, yet these sources identify trees as emblematic. Trees also take a long time to bear fruit, which is why we plant them first. Thus trees represent the long-term needs of the land and people.

The message of bal tashchit—the prohibition against waste and needless destruction—also begins with trees. The Torah teaches us that we are not to cut down fruit trees in wartime.6 It asks, “Is the tree of the field a man, to come in during the siege before you?” Destroying trees is understood by our sages to encompass the entire range of needless destruction.

Rashi (France, 1040–1105) understands this verse to mean that since the tree is not an enemy, we have no right to destroy it or make it suffer. Rabbeinu Bachya (Spain, 1255–1340) explains this to mean that trees are so important to people that they are compared to human beings—which is to say: destroying those trees destroys human life, because it may destroy the lives that depend on them.

These Jewish sages highlight the Torah’s use of trees to generate within us compassion and awareness of interdependence, both essential for living in ecological balance.

In addition to inappropriate destruction, lessons about trees also teach us about proper use of resources. The Midrash7 teaches that the Israelites planted saplings when they arrived in Egypt. When the Jews left Egypt, they cut these trees to for use in the Sanctuary of G‑d. The trees sang with joy because they were being elevated for a holy, long-term purpose. We, too, can sanctify our resource use with holy intent.

The trees sang with joy because they were being elevated for a holy, long-term purpose.

Jewish teachings about trees apply not only to biblical Israel, but also to the environmental challenges we face in the modern world. Today we use trees in myriad ways, more than ever before, with tremendous ramifications for the future of the rainforests, the global climate, and human civilization itself. A few ways we can reduce our tree consumption are: to buy products in bulk and thereby use less packaging; arrange to receive bank, phone and other bills electronically; and bring a cloth bag instead of using paper (or plastic).8

Bringing this wisdom about trees into our daily lives can help us become more cognizant of the precious resources we have been given, and more careful about how we use them. In so doing, we can transform our relationship to the natural world, sanctify our daily actions and take better care of the planet G‑d created.

This article has been adapted by the authors and Evonne Marouk from Dr. Akiva Wolff’s “The Trees in Jewish Thought,” and Rabbi Yonatan Neril’s “The Trees Sang with Joy,” both available here.

This material was produced as part of the Jewcology project. Jewcology is a new Web portal for the global Jewish environmental community. Thanks to the ROI community for their generous support, which made the Jewcology project possible.

Footnotes
2.

Kohelet Rabbah 7:28.

5.

Vayikra Rabbah 25:3.

7.

Tanchuma, Terumah 9.

8.

To learn more about the wealth of Jewish teachings on trees, visit Canfei Nesharim’s Tu B’Shevat resources.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril is founder and director of Jewish Eco Seminars, which engages and educates the Jewish community with Jewish environmental wisdom.
Dr. Akiva Wolff is currently writing a book, based on his doctoral thesis, on applying the principle of bal tashchit to current environmental issues.
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Linda Adelaide July 26, 2012

Trees in Israel How can we impress on people the value for ourselves and our children and theirs of the trees we have and not to needlessly waste them and the resources they give? Reply

Justin Roth March 29, 2012

When was it first recognized as a holiday? I see that the Tanach and many Rabbinical authorities recognize the importance of taking care of our environment. But when was Tu B'Shevat first formally celebrated as a holiday? Inquiring minds want to know. Reply

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