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Planting trees isn’t enough

The Jewish National Fund´s book of Tu B'Shevat sermons. (JNF)

The Jewish National Fund´s book of Tu B’Shevat sermons. (JNF)

ENCINO, Calif., Jan. 7 (JTA) — “Look at the clock,” Danny tells his classmates at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, Calif. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5 . . . in those five seconds, 12 acres of rain forests have been destroyed.” Danny is quoting statistics from the Rainforest Action Network. Thousands of years ago, on Tu B’Shevat, Jewish farmers counted their trees. They were commanded, in Deuteronomy 4:22, to tithe 10 percent of their harvested fruit to support the priesthood and the poor. But since fruit could be picked only from trees at least three years old, they needed a method to determine a tree’s age. Hence, Tu B’Shevat, a time in Israel when the trees begin to flower, was designated as the birthday of all trees. Today, on Tu B’Shevat, Jewish students like Danny, as well as conservationists and environmental activists, calculate the rate at which trees are decimated, acres of forests at a time, faster than we can count or replace them. Rather than celebrating their birthdays, we seem to be marking their deaths. The situation is only getting worse. In the United States, the Bush administration has sought to delay, and may still fight, implementation of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which bans commercial logging and road building in 58.5 million acres of formerly protected U.S. forest land. Additionally, the administration has recently proposed lifting restrictions on National Forest Management Act rules. Lifting these regulations would, among other things, eliminate required environmental impact studies, reduce public involvement, weaken wildlife protection and allow reckless logging. And logging, the actual removal of the trees, is only the beginning of the damage caused to the earth’s eco-system, which is anchored by approximately 10 billion acres of forest land worldwide. According to the Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation, irresponsible and excessive logging contributes to soil erosion, landslides, catastrophic fires, insect infestations, climatic changes, including global warming, and damage to fish and wildlife. It also affects people emotionally. According to the group’s campaign manager, Fred Krueger, “People need the renewal of spirit and psyche that comes from the opportunity to relax and regenerate in forests.” Jews should know the value of trees. After all, God created trees and other plant life on the third day, before animals and human beings. In Genesis 1:11, God says, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” Trees are so important, in fact, that fruit-bearing varieties are to be protected even in times of war. Deuteronomy 20:19 states, “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy the trees, wielding the ax against them.” This is the origin of bal tashchit, the prohibition against wanton destruction. “The earth is the Lord’s,” the first line of Psalm 24 tells us, “and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.” The earth is not ours to exploit. It belongs to God. Over the years, Tu B’Shevat, through environmental organizations such as the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, founded in 1993, has become a kind of Jewish Earth Day, urging us to pay heed and rededicate ourselves to the earth’s well being. Traditionally, on Tu B’Shevat, American Jews send money to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel. They also plant trees locally. That’s an admirable start, but more is needed because the earth can no longer meet the demands put upon it. According to a study conducted by Redefining Progress, a nonprofit California-based environmental conservation group, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “The consumption of forests, energy and land by humans is exceeding the rate at which Earth can replenish itself.” The study found that globally each person consumes an average of 5.7 acres; in the industrialized United States, that average rises to 24 acres per person. In his recently released book, “Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man,” British paleobiologist Michael Boulter posits, in light of drastic environmental changes and in looking at five previous major mass extinctions, that we are facing another imminent mass destruction. Only this time, he believes, humans will become the extinct creatures. On account of man’s overwhelming selfishness and aggression, Boulter doubts that this trend can be reversed. Danny, however, is more optimistic. He is advocating that his class donate charity money to help save the rain forest. But Danny is contributing in an even bigger way; he is a vegetarian. “Don’t eat meat,” he tells his classmates. “Forests are cut down so people can raise more animals.” In fact, in the United States and much of the rest of the world, cattle grazing is the number one reason for deforestation. Danny is in agreement with writer and Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, who claimed that vegetarianism was his protest against the conduct of the world. “Vegetarianism is my statement,” he said, “and I think it’s a strong one. And a beneficial one to earth’s ecosystem. As Danny reminds his friends, “If you eat vegetarian for one year, you can save one acre of forest land.”Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino, Calif. She is the mother of four sons.