Climate Change, Delayed Gratification and Tu Bishvat (Tu Bishvat 5783)

At this time of the year, three years ago, I wrote about Stav Harari and Dean Shoshani. They were both 25 and had just started their lives together in a new apartment in the colorful Hatikvah Quarter in South Tel Aviv. Dean was ecstatic, telling his sister, “my dream is coming true every day.”

On January 5, 2020, the young couple entered the elevator of their building. Outside, it had started to rain, and apparently the water short-circuited the elevator, which got stuck. When they first got trapped, Stav and Dean probably joked, maybe even made a racy comment about being stuck together in a tiny space. As Israelis they were conditioned to make light of stressful situations. But in a few minutes, they realized that their situation was no laughing matter. The rain outside had become a torrential storm and water started to seep slowly but relentlessly into the elevator. After three hours punctuated by Stav and Dean’s desperate calls and knocks, rescue personnel were finally able to extract them from their metal cage. But by then they were dead. Stav and Dean saw their death coming at them in slow motion. For three hours. 10,800 seconds. If drowning is a horrible way of dying; imagine drowning very slowly.

Climate change is Stav and Dean’s story, not some abstract disquisition of television pundits. Climate change is not just glaciers you’re never going to visit melting in some unknown country, not just polar bears and penguins in distress. Climate change is two young Israelis with their whole lives ahead of them dying a slow and horrific death. Fighting climate change is not about saving the planet. The planet will be fine. It’s about saving people like Stav and Dean.

That storm that hit Tel Aviv in 2020 broke records, but extreme weather events are becoming routine in the Holy Land. If three years ago floods were the problem, today Israel is experiencing its driest winter in 60 years. With each passing year, the Dead Sea sees a new heat record (now standing at 122 F, a temperature never before recorded since the foundation of the state). In the Negev, cars have spontaneously caught fire, and every year more people die of heat stroke and dehydration than the one previous.

Climate change is relevant to almost all Jewish holidays because they all have an agricultural and ecological dimension. If spring disappears and we have only two seasons, “hot and hotter,” what happens to Passover, aka “Chag HaAviv,” the holiday of spring? How do we celebrate the Shavuot harvest when our fields are scorched? And what is to become of Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees and the ecological holiday “par excellence.”

Tu Bishvat celebrates the importance of trees in our lives, and modern science has proved something that our tradition seemed to know already: that trees are at the center of any ecological system. “Collapse,” the landmark Jared Diamond book, shows how deforestation and careless management of woodlands sets off a chain reaction of ecological calamity that, in many cases, brings about the collapse of civilizations. But Tu Bishvat has another message that is counter-cultural for our times and closely linked to the root cause of climate change: the notion of delayed gratification.

According to the Torah, one is forbidden to eat a tree’s fruits until a full three years after its planting. Tu Bishvat serves as the milestone by which these three years are counted. It has been suggested that the practice of waiting made good agricultural sense. The tree gets pruned in the first three years and produces better harvests later. There is another message related to the importance of deferred gratification as well. The gorgeous fruits are there, tantalizingly close, and yet we are asked to wait three years to consume them. The Torah tells us to sacrifice the pleasure of immediate satisfaction for a more sustainable, genuine well-being – both material and spiritual – later.

Delayed gratification is present in many Jewish rituals, as anybody who waited two hours for the food at the Seder table can attest. Even on normal days, before taking a bite of food or a sip of drink we are commanded to stop and say a blessing.

But today, we live in a time that glorifies instant gratification. We are a generation with no patience, one willing to mortgage our future for the sake of immediate gain. Climate change is one example among many of instant gratification gone rogue. In addition to the fringe conspiracy theorists that still deny climate change, there are rational the objections to environmental measures pointing to how they limit economic growth. Assuming one accepts that fighting climate change does in fact hurt the economy (which hasn’t been proven), a trade-off exists between immediate economic growth and future potential catastrophe. In other words, gratification now instead of well-being later. And even if one believes that climate change is already irreversible, societies have been largely reluctant to invest in the mitigating infrastructure because of the immediate economic cost. It’s not (only) because governments are callous and inept, but because societies aren’t willing to sacrifice even a fraction of their short-term interests and comforts.

Indeed, our culture of instant gratification shows itself in other ways. These include but are not limited to rising budget deficits that will need to be paid with sacrifices from later generations, negative rates of saving, short-termism in the evaluation of stocks and assets, and cutting corners when designing aircrafts. Policymakers are only responding to a society that has ceased to believe in sacrificing today on behalf of the future.

This is important also in terms of Jewish identity: Instant gratification is affecting the way in which our communities operate. We assume that we live in an era with no patience, and that makes us disinvest from any initiative that demands a long-term commitment, like serious Jewish learning.

Tu Bishvat should move us reflect on the catastrophic effects of our obsession with instant gratification. But Tu Bishvat also offers optimism, because it doesn’t view this state of affairs with fatalism or resignation. It tries to teach us that character, self-discipline and delayed gratification are learnable. They are like a muscle that grows and strengthens when exercised. We can and must strive for a society that knows the value of now, but also gives a voice to the future; a society that understands that instant gratification is fleeting and unsatisfying. Unsatisfying for it doesn’t leave us with the feeling of having done something meaningful, but with an empty and compulsive desire for more. Imagine the deep sense of accomplishment of ancient Israelites when eating those juicy fruits for which they toiled and waited four years, and compare that to the ephemeral dopamine rush we get in our compulsive shopping sprees.

The good news is that many in the Jewish Community are taking this issue seriously, and they are doing what our tradition has always done: be countercultural when the zeitgeist goes awry. Organizations like Hazon and Dayenu are bringing a uniquely Jewish approach to fighting climate change. Birthright Israel, led by philanthropists Stephen & Ellen Bronfman, recently embarked on a drive to “green” their operations. Israeli hi-tech companies are leading the way in green energies, and Jewish impact investors are supporting them. And last, but certainly not least, JFN is facilitating the Green Funders Forum, a group of Israeli funders that are taking innovative action to address this major challenge.

These initiatives, and many others, give me reason for hope in this Tu Bishvat. If we internalize the message that instant gratification is self-defeating, and if we understand the risk that our unchecked greed entails for our own children, maybe the absurd and avoidable deaths of Dean and Stav will have not been in vain.

PS: For info on the Green Funders Forum contact Program Manager Gil Yaacov at [email protected]