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Locusts, Trees, and Tu Bishvat

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

Did you know that the word Elohim, God, and the word ha-tevah, nature, have the same numerical value in Hebrew?  While Jews are not pantheistic, that is, we don’t believe that nature IS God, we certainly sense the deep and intimate connection between the Creator and the creation.  Rabbi Joseph Leib Bloch taught that, “(a good Jew) will be filled with wonder and excitement at the sight of the glories of nature. . . and will know how to use these feelings for the sublime purpose of recognizing the Creator.”  Nature may not BE God, yet, we experience God’s presence in nature, and, when we hurt the environment, we imagine that God feels that pain.

This week’s Torah portion, Bo, describes the devastation of the land caused by the plague of locusts. We read this warning to Pharaoh- (Exodus 10:4-5)- “If you refuse to humble yourself, every tree will be destroyed.” The text continues, (10:15), “(the locusts) ate all the grass of the land and all the fruit of the trees left behind by the hail, and there did not remain any green of the tree and grass of the field in the whole land of Egypt.” Yet Pharaoh hardened his heart. It’s easy to judge Pharaoh for his hubris and his insensitivity to the environmental threat concerning which he had been duly warned.

And what about us? What about our lack of humility, the hardness of our hearts, as we stand idly by the destruction of the environment that sustains us? We have been warned of the threat to our environment- how are we responding?

The Midrash, written two thousand years ago, depicts God as warning Adam, Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah (7:13) – "When God created Adam, God led him around all of the trees in the Garden of Eden. God told him, 'See how beautiful and praiseworthy are all of My works. . . do not corrupt the world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you.'"

The rabbis were ahead of their time; millennia ahead of their time. They understood our responsibility to care for the earth, that we are but custodians of God’s gift to us. They established the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, which we will celebrate later this month, the new year of the trees, a time to reinforce our role as guardians of nature.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat reminds us that the word for human, Adam, is the same as the word for the earth. She writes that, “The first human was called Adam: earthling. We can never leave that original name. All that we are, all that we are made of, all that we live on, comes from the earth. We may try to separate ourselves from the rhythms of the earth. We may heat and air condition our houses and cars, but we cannot live outside the earth. We may shape the earth but we can never completely control it. We belong to the earth; the earth does not belong to us.”

The second paragraph of the Shema contains yet another statement that, based on human choices, the earth can and will be destroyed with no opportunity to be restored to balance. We have the power to create and we have the power to destroy. The Medibozer Rebbe expressed it like this, “God placed sparks of holiness within everything in nature.” Our task as humans is to sense and protect that spark.

I’ll conclude with the beautiful story of Choni, as told in the Talmud, “The Rabbis tell the story of Choni, who one day saw a grandfather and his grandchild planting a carob tree. Choni laughed, "Foolish man, do you think you will live to eat the fruit of this tree?" The old man replied, "My grandparents planted for me, now I plant for my grandchildren."

Weary from the heat of the day, Choni laid down for a nap. The nap became a sleep of many years, and when he awakened he did not know that his hair was white as snow. Choni returned to the spot where the old man had planted the sapling. He was surprised to see a full grown carob tree, and an elderly woman giving its fruit to the great grandchild of the man who first planted the tree. Choni then realized what had happened to him, and he told the woman and the little girl how God had taught him that one must plant not only for himself but for future generations as well. (Taanit 23) We are all Choni. We must care for the earth, our gift to the generations to come.

And a final word from John Wright, “Let the trees be consulted before you take any action. Every time you breathe in, thank a tree.” As we read about the plague of locusts, as we heed the warning that, in fact, the earth is a perishable commodity entrusted to our hands, as we prepare for Tu B’Shevat, let us humbly renew our commitment as Adam, as human beings to guard and protect ha-Adamah, the earth.

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