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The earth is changing, and Jewish traditions can help us cope

One day in elementary school in Chicago, our teacher handed out booklets called “The Trees of Illinois.” I don’t remember the assignment, but I do know that each page became a treasure for me.

I walked around my neighborhood holding the pages open to the names of different trees. Next to each name were sketches of the tree’s identifying features such as leaf shape, flowers and seedpods. Each day became an adventure in discovery! I dutifully memorized the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer that was printed on the back cover. The first verse begins with the words “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree …,” which inspired my lifelong affection for the beauty and wonder of nature.

My untiring observations have led me to a new understanding of the links between societal stress and the natural environments of oceans, land and atmosphere. When natural resources are abundant, our leaders and the rest of us go about our daily lives without thinking too much about the vulnerability of these resources. We rely on government regulations to protect humans and animals from toxic products in the soil; to place caps on harmful emissions for clean air; and to limit fishing to protect and maintain sea life in the oceans and waterways.

Nevertheless, fast changes occurring on earth cause significant harm to our country. In the last year, hurricanes shattered both mainland communities and islands in the Caribbean. The devastation that occurred in Houston, Texas, serves as an example of communities built in areas that had not been designated for houses. Post-flooding analysis showed that severe damage was, in large part, due to constructing neighborhoods inside reservoirs, which were originally built to protect the city from flooding. The prairie and rice fields surrounding the reservoirs could have drained floodwaters, but they were built over with more houses. Puerto Rico was hammered by multiple hurricanes and the island was left in ruins. The damage to the infrastructure robbed the people of their livelihoods, roads, clean water and electricity. The failure to correct these problems has forced a continuing exodus of thousands from the island to the mainland. A catastrophe like this one reminds us, also, that severe weather can be a force for human migration. 

In Southern California, people pushed deep into forests and foothills to build neighborhoods that required trees and vegetation to be cut down. These actions resulted in stressing the soil and sharply changing the natural environment. Inordinately heavy rains followed the ensuing firestorms of last year. This combination of circumstances led to the severe mud/tree slides that resulted in people and animals dying, and the destruction of scores of houses and other structures. 

The effects of wildfires and floods reverberate in agriculture. The largest avocado and lemon-producing region in America was hit by the California Thomas fire. And where fire did not destroy crops, they were susceptible to damage by heavy smoke, soot and ash. Following Hurricane Irma in September, the damage to the Florida citrus groves decimated the season’s fruit production. Even now, consumers buy oranges grown outside the U.S. Further south, the tomato harvest was delayed, which led to lower yields of the vegetable. 

Throughout our history, we humans have been conditioned to perceive danger to our survival. We are shaken, unquestionably, by extreme weather events, which result in destroying nature and depleting natural resources. As natural resources become scarce, stress can increase in society and the tensions each of us experiences may intensify. We worry about what the loss of resources means to our survival. We worry, too, about the current condition and future existence of humans on earth.

Our Jewish heritage provides some solutions for our deep concerns. A remarkable strength of Judaism is that it teaches us to seek balance by being closely connected with the natural world. We learn to connect with nature in ways that respect and protect it. By celebrating Tu b’Shevat, the New Year of Trees, we reaffirm that our place on the planet is within the setting of other living systems. And the name itself, the New Year of Trees, suggests the promise of the renewal of nature and we are called to participate in this rebirth. 

From year to year, Tu b’Shevat restates the belief that we are united with the natural world. I look forward to the opportunity this year to honor our commitment to harmony with nature.

Mary Greenberg, Ph.D. serves on the State of Kansas Holocaust Commission. Her speaking engagements on preventing anti-Semitism, and the link between anti-Semitism and leadership are based on her research that advances the study of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.