Tu B'Shvat and Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Reflections on the environment and justice

Reflections on the environment and justiceBy Mark X. Jacob

The coincidence that Tu B'Shvat, the Jewish new year for trees, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the celebration of one of America's greatest leaders, come together on the same weekend this year provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the connection between trees and justice.

Throughout the world, Jews gather on Tu B'Shvat to celebrate trees and the bounty we receive from God through them.

According to the Talmud, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat marks the beginning of the sap rising in the trees of Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), a sign of spring and the renewal of life.

In the Jewish legal tradition, Tu B'Shvat is the beginning of the fiscal year for the biblical tithes on fruit. Two ecologically oriented practices dominate our observance of Tu B'Shvat. Many communities celebrate this holiday by planting trees, and thus actively participate as partners in creation, keeping alive the great garden in which we live.

Increasingly popular among Jews of all denominations is the Tu B'Shvat seder. Like the Passover seder, it is an elaborate intertwining of food, wine and words.

This kabbalistic ritual emanates from the mystical notion that eating a wide variety of fruits with proper intention can effect a tachyon (a healing or rectification) of the first time humans "missed the mark" by eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

The global ecological crisis — from burning rain forests and clear-cutting ancient forests. Holes in the ozone layer make clear that our nibblings from the Tree of Knowledge have indeed brought an urgent need for terrestrial healings of cosmic proportion.

In Tu B'Shvat we find an affirmation of the necessity for caring for trees, and by extension, the entire garden in which we live.

And we find a connection between our consciousness, our consumption (eating), and the health of the world around us.

From the trees of our glorious garden we eat not only olives, oranges, dates, figs, and myriad other fruits but also books, paper, napkins, fences, furniture and houses (not to mention oxygen).

The Hebrew word for tree is eytz. "Eytz chayyim he" — a tree of life is she — we sing as we put away the Sefer Torah on Shabbat mornings.

And that same eytz also means what we call in English "wood" or "timber."

Hebrew does not distinguish between the inanimate and the animate. Both are eytz, part of the web of life. For the Hebrew mind, there is no gazing out at the forest and seeing "timber" or "forest products" — commodities devoid of any sense of aliveness.

If we are conscious when we eat, or consume from a tree, that we are eating from a living being which provides nourishment, creates oxygen and holds the very earth in place, we will be moved to reduce our use of paper and disposable products and we will reuse what we can and recycle or compost what we cannot.

We will demand an end to the burning and clear-cutting of forests. This is a message of Tu B'Shvat.

As Jews celebrate Tu B'Shvat, we join with people across the nation to commemorate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and reflect on our country's struggle to overcome injustice of all kinds.

One of the great injustices of our time is the greatly disproportionate share of the burdens of pollution and ecological destruction borne by minority and poor people. People of color are more than 45 percent more likely than are whites to live near a commercial hazardous waste facility in our country.

Take the Rev. Conley of West Dallas, Texas. Of his six children, one was born with intestinal polyps (she had a colostomy at 24), another was born with a tumor in his back, while a third entered this world with hair growing on only one side of his head.

The Conleys live in a poor, overwhelmingly African American neighborhood situated in the backyard of a lead smelting company that processes car batteries.

For 25 years the Rev. Conley has sought to have that smelter effectively regulated.

"The sad part about what took place is that we as a country allowed this to happen knowingly. Every day, black and Latino kids are being poisoned in this country," laments Conley.

The voices of the Revs. Conley and King echo our biblical tradition's mandates of justice. It is our duty to demand justice for African American children being poisoned by a lead smelter in Texas, for farm workers poisoned by pesticides in California, for a Latino community in New Jersey living in the shadow of a mercury-spewing incinerator, or for Native Americans in the Southwest dying of cancer from uranium wastes.

We in the Jewish community are generally shielded from the worst of this horror. Indeed, we are often shielded even from the knowledge of this horror.

Yet there are things we can do to address these ills. Many things we use or consume every day — car batteries, light bulbs, paper, the fruit that we eat — are produced or disposed in ways that damage the health of other people, even poison them.

Our tradition of justice demands that we respond. We cannot continue to allow certain groups of people to suffer the negative consequences of things from which we all benefit.

The voices for environmental justice are calling on us to do whatever is necessary to eliminate the creation of toxic wastes, so that none of us or our children will suffer cancer, chronic illness or mental retardation.

This urgent and enormous task could easily overwhelm us.

Yet we have two powerful traditions to guide us in this challenge. The mystical tradition of Tu B'Shvat teaches an awareness of the power of our acts of eating, and cultivates an appreciation for the interconnectedness of all people, creatures, trees and seemingly inanimate things. If we eat from the garden, so too we must plant in the garden.

From the tradition of Dr. King, we learn how the humanity of our brothers and sisters transcends class and color, and we learn how to work together to translate moral mandates into public policies which protect the health and well-being of all people.

And we can reach out to the people who live among the smokestacks and waste sites of our communities and work for the just distribution of environmental burdens and the eventual elimination of toxins, so that all of God's children can till and tend the garden in good health.

Mark X. Jacobs is director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

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