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Earth Day Thoughts

Take good care of it; it’s the only one we’ll get (Midrash, Kohelet Rabbah, ch. 7)

April 22, 2019, Earth Day

The world initiated Earth Day in 1970. Great idea! It makes us more conscious of how we care for our environment. Hopefully it also reminds us that we must do a better job than we are doing.

But forgive me if, as Jew I feel a bit smug, because we have had our “Earth Day” for at least 1800 years. It is called Tu B’Shevat.

Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat falls mid-winter. It is first mentioned in the Mishnah (the first post-biblical code of Jewish law compiled between c. 200 BCE and 200CE) as “the New Year for trees. or that long it has been our people’s de facto Earth Day.

A famous Midrash teaches when God finished creating the world, the Almighty addressed humanity, saying, “You are in charge of and are responsible for this earth. But it is the only one you will get. So preserve and enhance it. Do not pollute or destroy it” (Kohelet Rabbah, Chapter 7). Sound advice for us today.

In the late eighties when then Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, Jr. began his campaign of environmental awareness (which led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007), he asked me to prepare “a closing homily” for the first meeting of the initiative held in Nashville, the city where I then served as rabbi. On that occasion, I related a venerable Hasidic story told in many different ways about a magnificent goat that lived long ago. The goat had horns so long and beautiful that when he lifted his head, he could touch the stars, and they would sing the most beautiful melody that anyone had ever heard.

One day, a man was walking through the forest thinking of what he might give his wife for her birthday. He encountered the goat, and a brilliant idea jumped into his head. “I could make my wife a gorgeous jewelry box from a piece of one of the goat’s horns,” he thought.

The man approached the goat, which was very tame and friendly, and explained, “I want to make a jewelry box from just a small piece of one of your horns. It won’t hurt when I cut it off, and I’ll just take a small piece. You won’t even miss it!” The goat lowered his head to accommodate the man’s request.

The jewelry box that the man fashioned was indeed beautiful, and his wife adored it. Proudly, she showed it to all of her friends who soon wanted one just like it. You can see where this is going. Soon the goat was inundated with requests to “cut off just a small piece” of one of his horns. Of course, soon his horns were much shorter. The goat could no longer reach the stars, and that most beautiful melody was forever silenced.

This wonderful tale teaches one of the vital lessons of Genesis’ Creation story. We, human beingsnot the crocodile, the elephant nor the lion, though they are stronger, faster, and fiercerare in charge of, and responsible for, this world. Therefore, if we are to pass on a beautiful and healthful environment to our children and grandchildren, we must do a much better job than we are doing now of taking care of it.

What is the best way to celebrate Earth Day? Study and heed the lessons our Sages taught nearly 2000 years ago.

(Much of this essay is excerpted from my book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, pp.2-3. It is available on AMAZON.com http://tinyurl.com/jdd4cvn

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