Collective responsibility: A Tu Bishvat lesson
Collective responsibility: A Tu Bishvat lesson

Tu Bishvat is a holiday that signifies the beginning of the Biblical agricultural cycle, the first sap of the season, and also serves as an ancient calculation system for laws regarding tithes and Orlah (protection of fruit trees during first three years). This year it falls on Monday, January 21, which is 15 Shvat in the Jewish calendar.

The celebration of Tu Bishvat has been modernized to include planting trees and eating fruits that grow in the land of Israel, in a symbolic seder ritual with wine. However, Tu Bishvat is also a time to reflect on halakhot (Judaic laws) about environmental conservation, and ask ourselves if we are truly embodying the spirit of Tu Bishvat through our treatment of the land and natural resources.

Earth and nature play an essential role in Judaism. Starting with the creation of the world, it is said that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,” and “breathed into his nostrils the soul of life.” (Gen 2:7)

In fact, the Hebrew word for man, adam, comes from the words ha’adama, which means ground/earth, and dam, blood.

The first letter in adam is an aleph, which represents God; man is a combination of Godliness and earthliness—the very paradox of our universe—the combining of infinite holiness and physicality.

Starting with creation, the Torah continues to mention how people are to live with consideration to the land, as it says, God “placed him in the garden to work it and to guard it.” (Gen 2:15) There is an ethical law of bal tashchit (“do not waste” in English) that is first introduced in the Torah when explaining how to go about in war. When besieging a city in wartime, we are commanded, “You shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you may not cut them down.” (Deut 20:19-20) Because those trees have the potential to feed people and aid in the wellbeing of the environment, it is considered wasteful and sinful to sever them.

Our holy sages take this law one step further, incurring that if the above is forbidden on the basis of wastefulness, then anything that has a functioning purpose cannot be thrown away. This rule applies to wasting water when there is a drought, throwing out clothes that someone in poverty could have benefited from, or buying commercialized products in excess, only for them to end up in landfills.

Maimonides adds his opinion on this, stating in the book Mishnah Torah that a Jew is forbidden from “smash[ing] household good[s], tear[ing] clothes…[and] destroy[ing] articles of food.” (Laws of Kings, 6:10) In fact, the destroying of physical things in general is considered to be on the same level of disobedience as is idol worship. We learn this from our forefather Abraham, who destroyed his father Terach’s idols, and as punishment, the Midrash says, was thrown in a fiery furnace for three days at the hands of King Nimrod. (Bereshit Rabbah 38:13)

The Tragedy of the Commons can also be understood as a collective lack of responsibility in terms of upkeep—littering, wasting electricity, and polluting the oceans and environment...
Another form of wastefulness that our sages have considered is the act of overeating, as it can harm your body and also takes away from the possibility of others having food. Other Jewish sages in Sefer Hachinuch add to this, writing that a righteous Jew “does not allow the loss of even a grain of mustard,” as everything that comes from the earth is a gift from God, and as such, must be treated with respect. (Vol 5, pg. 145)   

Let’s explore how the dismissal of bal tachshit affects us today. The Tragedy of the Commons, for example, is a pressing and relevant economic issue that explains the exploitation of public resources. Common cases of this include overfishing seas, cutting down trees in public land, wasting water, and more. The Tragedy of the Commons can also be understood as a collective lack of responsibility in terms of upkeep—littering, wasting electricity, and polluting the oceans and environment in general are all problems we are experiencing today.

This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, carries another interesting case against wastefulness. After the Jews leave Egypt and begin traveling across the desert, they quickly realize that they are without food. God then says to Moses, “See here, I will rain down food for them from heaven, and the people will go out and collect a daily portion every day. Thus I will test them” (Ex 16:5). Rashi comments on this, clarifying that the test was for the Jews to take the appropriate portion of maana every day. Commentators explain that any leftover maana that was not collected went bad and any maana that was hoarded, and would have been considered another man’s portion, would also expire immediately.

Essentially, the maana was a collective good and the test was for each person to take exactly how much they needed, and have faith that God would provide more in the days to come. This is an ancient example of The Tragedy of the Commons - it was everyone’s collective responsibility to take only what they needed, and if we treated our planet the same way today, it would greatly elevate the commandment of bal tashchit.

The best way to personalize Tu Bishvat for each and every Jew is to take something new upon themselves. Whether it is to lower your waste capital or ecological footprint in general (you can calculate yours here), do so with kavanah (devotion) and in the name of preserving God’s gifting of the earth to us, the earth which feeds, shelters, and homes us.