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Faces on Faith: For Jews, Earth Day is — at least — 1,800 years old

By RABBI STEPHEN LEWIS FUCHS - | Jan 26, 2021

PHOTO PROVIDED Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

After Chanukah, the next special occasion in the Jewish year is Tu B’Shevat, the birthday of the trees. This year Tu B’Shevat corresponds to Jan. 28. It is first and foremost a holiday to remind us of our responsibility to care for the environment.

In the United States we began celebrating Earth Day in 1970. Earth Day responded to a need to recognize and take cognizance of our human responsibility to protect our environment. Here on our sanctuary island of Sanibel, there are, thankfully, many different initiatives that promote environmental awareness and care.

Last year, young Greta Thunberg became TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year for focusing the world’s attention on our neglect of the environment.

Our festival of environmental awareness, Tu B’Shevat, is first mentioned in the Mishnah, compiled between 200 BCE and 200 CE. That means we Jews began observing our “Earth Day” and publicly focusing on environmental awareness for at least 1,800 years.

In chapter seven of the Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, we read: “After the creation of the world God addressed the first couple, Adam and Eve, and told them to take care of this world and all of its beauty and abundance. Beware, though, God reminded them, of destroying or polluting this earth because it is the only one we shall have.”

In the late 1980s, when I served as rabbi in Nashville, Albert Gore, then a U.S. Senator from Tennessee, began convening seminars which led to his book and movie about the environment which eventually won him the Nobel Prize for Peace. At the first of these occasions, Sen. Gore invited me to share a closing homily that concretized this concern. On that occasion I shared the following story:

“Once upon a time — long ago — there was a goat with horns so long that when he stretched his neck, they grazed the sky and caused the stars to sing the most beautiful melody anyone had ever heard. One day a man was walking through the forest thinking of buying a gift for his wife’s birthday when he encountered the goat. Seeing his beautiful horns he thought to cut a small piece off of one to make a jewelry box for his wife. He asked the goat if he could do so, and the goat being a friendly sort agreed. When friends saw the lovely jewelry box, everyone wanted one. Then many people each took just a little bit of the goat’s precious horn for his or her own use. As a result the stars no longer sing.”

For me, this story conveys the essential message of Tu B’Shevat: If we destroy it, we shall never have another one.

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is with the Bat Yam Temple of the Islands.