Massive tree planting program may save planet

August 25, 2019 / Leave a Comment

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — It might surprise most people to know that ecological themes form an important part of the Torah and Tanakh.

For example:

Genesis begins with an important ecological truth: “The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it” (Gen. 2:15).

When the Holy Blessed One created the first man, He took him and led him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘Behold My works, how beautiful and commendable they are! All that I have created, for your sake I created it. Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy My world. For if you spoil her, there will be nobody to repair her after you. -Eccles. Rabbah 7:20

This Midrashic interpretation highlights the importance of stewardship, not only for the Garden of Eden, but for our taking care of the earth, God’s garden. By taking care of the primordial garden, Adam learns to recognize that all of life is God’s unique design, endowed with spirit, consciousness, and intelligence. Adam’s respect for Creation makes him realize that the human species is a part of the great web of life, which he must nurture for the world to be self-sustaining and productive. Indeed, the degradation of the environment damages the original balance that Adam and his progeny must maintain. Through toil, Adam would realize how all of Creation depends on the Divine as the source of life for its sustenance and continued existence.

Understanding the implications of Adam’s stewardship is vital for our contemporary society.  The science of ecology has shown how ecosystems of the world are delicately balanced; should human beings ruin them through abusive acts (ecocide), future generations will have to endure the consequences. Through work and stewardship, humankind comes to emulate God’s own work and creativity as Imitatio Dei (imitation of God). It was the divine intent from the beginning for humankind to elevate and ennoble itself by work, and elevate Creation to the realm of the spirit, leading all Creation in song and joyous exaltation of the Divine. Note that God intended to make Adam not a “master” over the Garden of Eden, but its caretaker and steward. Once Adam forgets that he is only a steward of the garden, the boundaries established by the Creator became unclear and ultimately violated.

The midrashic writers expressed a profound intuition—one that still resonates with wisdom—even today. Chief Seattle, in a meeting that took place in 1854 with the “The Great White Chief” in Washington, is purported to have replied:

  • “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clear and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap, which courses through the trees, carries the memory and experience of my people.
  • The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful Earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the Earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle—these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and the man, all belong to the same family.
  • The rivers are our brothers for they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes and feed our children. … The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath ‑ the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. Teach your children what we have taught our children that the Earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves. This we know—the Earth does not belong to man—man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are interconnected like the blood, which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth—befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life—he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

Back to the present:

We have all seen or heard about the news in Brazil, as the Amazon Rain Forest has gone up in flames. The Amazon Rain Forest is purported to provide 20% of the world’s oxygen—a necessary ingredient for our planetary survival.

The Brazilian government has tried to exploit the Amazon forest for decades, but recently industrialists have promoted a policy of deforesting their country. On Friday, the governments of the international community exerted pressure on the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, who decided to mobilize his military to contain the blazes.

As a chorus of condemnation intensified, Brazil braced for the prospect of punitive measures that could severely damage an economy that is already sputtering after a brutal recession. The country’s populist besieged president faces a withering reckoning–especially at the polls, come next election.

Regardless what position people have concerning global warming, I for one believe that we ought to err on the side of caution. But I do not believe that we ought to spend trillions of dollars to prevent it by a degree or two.

Consider the Land of Israel.

What can we do about global warming? Mark Twain once wrote after touring the Holy Land in the 19th century that he was amazed at how desolate the land of Israel was. In a moment of inspiration, Twain said that the people who care for the land will someday make it bloom once more.

Israel to this day has planted over 200 million trees in forests and woodlands covering some 300,000 acres.  Tese trees provide Israelis with a wide range of opportunities for outdoor recreation and appreciation of nature.

The Israeli people have made the desert bloom.  In addition, Israel has developed the most effective water-management systems and a sustained prosperous economy even under relatively harsh climatic conditions.  It has prevented the overexploitation of natural resources, which otherwise would have driven the land toward desolation, producing severe land degradation, erosion, and salination.

Since its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel has embraced issues of sustainable land management and has adopted public policies designed to restore, develop, and manage its natural resources. Outside of Israel, about 240 million trees have been planted, particularly in the Mediterranean and semi-arid regions. Regulations have been introduced to control grazing and ensure effective water management. Due to these activities, Israel is one of the few countries in the world that has more trees now than it had a century ago.

Now why is Israel’s example so important? Replanting the planet with billions of trees all over the globe will not only beautify our world, it will contribute dramatically toward the absorption of carbon emissions. According to some studies, we need not knock down cities or takie over farms or natural grasslands. Reforested pieces could add up to new tree cover totaling just about the area of the United States, researchers report in the July 5 Science.

Can we do better? Of course. Israel’s example has demonstrated just how effective such an approach can be.  This approach can contain greenhouse gases. It is a method that will not destroy our society. Combined with other common-sense measures, we can ensure the world will be a beautiful place for future generations.

  • One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Honi asked him: “Old man! Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found already grown carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children” (BT Ta’anit 23b).

We owe the future a beautiful earth.

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Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com

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