The Jewish New Year for Trees began its life as a marker for taxation. In Kabbalistic thought the date became a moment for reflecting on the relationship between the emanation of fruit, and the creation of a soul. In early Zionist times Tu B’shvat became a celebration of the return to working the land – the Jew as agriculturist. And I wonder if we need to celebrate and encourage a new facet of this quasi-festival marking our role as environmental steward.
There are, in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis two creation narratives. The first is the famous one, day one – light, and it was good and so on. The second is less well known. In this second beginning there is an earth, but nothing grows on it, for there is no rain, and no person to work the ground. In the second creation narrative the first human is created before the trees and the fruit emerge. Perhaps the most important difference between the two narratives is that in the first the first humans are told they have dominion over the earth and everything in it. Actually the English term ‘dominion’ isn’t strong enough, the Hebrew term is ‘kivshuha’ – conquer, dominate. The image is of a triumphant gladiator, boot poised over the throat of a prostrate victim.
In the second creation narrative the relationship between the human and the earth is one of responsibility. We are placed on earth ‘to serve and protect it. The image is of a fragile eco-system dependent on us, who in turn, of course are dependent on it. My friend Rabbi Natan Levy makes the suggestion that the first creation narrative depicts the world of a hunter-gatherer, living in a jungle, surrounded by fruit that simply emerges from the trees, and the wild beasts from whom the human needs to be protected. Meanwhile the second creation narrative depicts the world of the settled farmer, tilling and planting ‘by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.’ We’ve placed too much store by the blessing that we should be victorious over our surrounding environment. That battle has been won and now we preside over a world of shrinking rainforests, pollutants and human-influenced climate change threatening catastrophe on disaster. There is perhaps wisdom in reflecting on our role in an environment we farm and cultivate – it is not a relationship of dominance of one over another. It is, or at least is supposed to be, one of service and protection. We need to treat our environment as something that can support us, if we support it.
Among many other Jewish organisations the Masorti Movement, and this Synagogue, are working to increase our ability to take small, but significant steps to retrain as guardians of our environment. Please take a moment, at this time of celebrating the cycle of our trees to check out www.biggreenjewish.org and make a pledge, read up on an issue that interests and make a change.