By Andrés Spokoiny
Lake Valencia in Venezuela was once a beautiful place. Nestled among mountains and sierras, and blessed by a humid and temperate climate, it developed a rich ecosystem that had sustained countless plants and animals, as well as human tribal societies.
But when Alexander von Humboldt visited Lake Valencia in 1800, the place looked very different than earlier accounts had led him to expect. The once-turquoise waters of the lake had turned into polluted mud, and those brackish waters were diverted at high volume for irrigation, shrinking the surface area of the lake dramatically; the land in the region had dried and the climate had shifted to hotter days and inclemently cold nights.
What had happened? Just a few decades of ruthless exploitation of the area by the Spanish colonists.
There, at Lake Valencia, Humboldt made two important discoveries. One is the notion of anthropogenic climate change in general: the idea that human activity changes weather patterns. Humboldt had invented the concepts of isothermal and isobaric lines, and other means of comparing weather across the globe, and he could pinpoint how human activity had altered weather patterns in various regions. If Humboldt could see that 200 years later, and despite mountains of evidence, smart people give credence to climate change deniers, he’d spin in his grave so madly that he’d make a hole bigger than Lake Valencia.
But the second discovery that Humboldt made in the Venezuelan countryside was that, in particular, it was the destruction of forests that began the degradation of the ecosystem and led, ultimately, to pernicious changes in the climate. Let’s hear from him directly:
When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, with an imprudent precipitation, the springs are entirely dried up, or become less abundant, The beds of the rivers remaining dry during a part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall on the heights. The sward and moss disappearing from the brush-wood on the sides of the mountains, the waters falling in rain are no longer impeded in their course: and instead of slowly augmenting the level of the rivers by progressive filtrations, they furrow during heavy showers the sides of the hills, bear down the loose soil, and form those sudden inundations that devastate the country.
A good deal north of Lake Valencia, Benjamin Franklin also obsessed about the terrible effects of deforestation, and created a fireplace specially design to produce more heat with less wood: “the Franklin Stove”. He wasn’t the only American worried about deforestation. James Madison warned about the effects of deforestation and the ravages of climate change as early as 1818.
I can’t help but link this story with the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, which we are about to celebrate. Tu Bishvat is called “the New Year of the Trees” and, besides serving ritual purposes, like calculating the age of trees for tithings and offerings, it serves, since Talmudic times, as a day of ecological awareness and appreciation. To be sure, all Jewish holidays have an ecological dimension: Pesach celebrates the renewal of the land in spring; in Sukkot water plays a central role; and on Shavuot, the harvest is a critical theme. But Tu Bishvat seems to grasp what Humboldt discovered thousands of years later: trees, in particular, are the centerpiece of nature, and our attitude towards them is both a symbol and a herald of our relation to nature as a whole.
There are three ways Judaism relates to nature: wonder; interconnectedness, and responsibility.
In our daily prayers we say, “How great are Your works, O God, in wisdom you made all of them. The earth is filled with your creations.” (Psalms 104:24). Maimonides adds: “The way to come to love God is by contemplating God’s amazing words and creations,” and Abraham Joshua Heschel goes even further by proclaiming that “radical amazement” is the engine of knowledge, wisdom, and morality. In an era of nihilism and wanton exploitation, Heschel warns us that “the world is full of wonders, special radiance, and marvelous secrets, but all it takes is a small hand held over the eye to hide it all”. Maimonides and Heschel understood that when we lose our capacity for wonder at nature, we are prone to lose our capacity to wonder about the uniqueness and ”special radiance” of every human being.
That brings us to the second element: interconnectedness. At Lake Valencia, Humboldt realized that Nature was not a disjointed collection of animals, plants, and rivers, but a living organism, interdependent and linked by countless relations between its parts. He saw that nature is like a human body, in which one can’t affect one part without affecting the whole.
The Torah goes further: in Deuteronomy 20, when God forbids the Israelites to destroy fruit-bearing trees when besieging a city, verse 19 contains a clause that can be read as a rhetorical question—“For is a tree of the field a man”?—or as a striking declarative statement: “Because Man is a tree of the field”. Rabbi Isaac Ashkenazi explains that the Torah compares humans to trees “because, like humans, trees have the power to grow. And as humans have children, so trees bear fruit. And as, when a human is hurt, cries of pain are heard throughout the world, so when a tree is chopped down, its cries are heard throughout the world.”
When nature is destroyed, life is destroyed, and life is one. Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, a founder of Modern Orthodoxy, said it beautifully: “All things exist in continuous reciprocal activity. None has power or mean for itself; each receives only in order to give, and gives in order to receive, and finds therein the fulfillment of the purpose of its existence. Love that supports and is supported in turn, that is the character of the Universe”.
But in the biblical comparison between trees and people lies another meaning: that the way in which we treat nature reflects the way in which we treat each other. In my native Argentina, the “obrajes” were institutions of rapacious timber exploitation that savagely destroyed large swaths of the unique ecosystem of the Chaco Forest. Unsurprisingly, they treated their native workers with the same cruelty that characterized their treatment of the forest.
Whoever doesn’t see the interdependence of nature won’t see the interdependence that exists among people. And that interdependence is central both to Jewish Peoplehood and to humanity at large. “All Israel are responsible for one another” is probably the best known Jewish dictum after “Love your neighbor as yourself”. And interdependence to fellow Jews serves not as an exclusionary principle, but rather as a model for our connections to others. The Talmud declares that “Whoever destroys a life, it is as if he has destroyed an entire universe, and whoever preserves a life, it is as if he had preserved an entire universe”. Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Understanding human society in ecological terms, as the Torah teaches us, implies respecting the uniqueness of every human being. As every species of trees and animals is a manifestation of God’s creation, so is every human being a Divine image. As in a natural habitat, diversity is vibrancy and homogeneity is entropy and death.
Interdependence leads us, inevitably, to the third element: responsibility.
To be sure, Judaism doesn’t propose radical conservationism or a “hands-off” approach to the environment. Jews are commanded to enjoy and benefit from the treasures of the earth, but with responsible stewardship and care. In Genesis, humans are instructed to “fill the Earth”, but also “to work it and protect it”. The Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah), explains further: “Look at My creations! See how beautiful and perfect they are! I created everything for you. Make sure that you don’t ruin or destroy My world. If you do, there will be no one after you to fix it”.
Judaism doesn’t propose a Luddite reaction against civilization; it doesn’t proclaim, as some radical environmentalist do today, that every human intervention is nefarious. Rather, it proposes the difficult but ultimately necessary task of harmonizing human progress with stewardship of Nature.
John Muir, father of the American environmental movement, said that “the clearest way into the Universe is through a forest”. On Tu Bishvat we see that our relationship with trees is important in itself, but it’s also a model and a metaphor.
The three components of the Jewish relationship with nature—wonder, interdependence, and responsibility—should be a model for human interactions in these uncertain times.
For us as funders, these three principles are vital: wonder at the opportunities to help; interdependence, in understanding that our grants, our actions, and our leadership affect a vast, interconnected community; and responsibility, for being a funder is wielding power that can be, and sometimes is, misused.
It was E.H. Haeckel who, in 1870 introduced the word ecology. He thought that we need to call the environment “home,” “eikos” in Greek. Ecology is the “logos,” the study, of our common home. On this Tu Bishvat, let’s follow the Torah’s advice and introduce ecophilia—not just the study but the love of our common home, both natural and human.