Maybe you already know that Monday, Jan. 17th, is both Tu Bishvat and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This rare confluence gives us an opportunity to see a connection.
As the climate and ecological crisis worsens, the importance of Tu Bishvat is becoming better recognized. It is a day sometimes known as the “birthday of the trees” and has essentially been our Jewish Earth Day for almost 2,000 years.
Our ancient wisdom correctly recognized the importance of trees, not only for Israel, but for the world. This prophetic environmental vision was picked up more than a century ago with the formation of Jewish National Fund, known for much great work, including planting a tremendous number of trees. In 1926, JNF was incorporated in the United States.
However, in the United States and other parts of the world, there have been decades of cutting trees down and increasing wildfires. Unfortunately, our denial, collective narcissism, and scapegoating led us to ignore the ecology taught by our tradition. We are just beginning to realize how crucial trees are for sequestering carbon, so essential in reducing global warming. Unfortunately, there are relatively few trees, with plenty of heat-absorbing asphalt, in our poor and minority communities.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died two years before our first Earth Day in the United States, and though little known for it, he was already becoming cognizant of the importance of our environment. “It is very nice to drink milk at an unsegregated lunch counter – but not when there’s Strontium 90 in it,” he famously said. He also talked about how all life is “interrelated.”
Environmental hazards and climate change can do more harm to those already with limited resources. Those hazards include lead poisoning, toxic waste sites and polluted air. Before he died, King was beginning to make connections among social justice, the global economy, and global ecology.
A rather disappointing global climate summit in November leaves it up to us. We must work toward the Tikkun Olam of healing our global ecology and associated inequities.
There is much for us to do, and our Jewish organizations and synagogues are starting to step up. There really can be no adequate social justice without ecological justice, and no supportive Earth without climate stewarding. In Cain and Abel terms, we are not only our brother’s and sister’s keepers, but our Earth’s keepers.
Steven Moffic, M.D., is an award-winning psychiatrist as a clinician, administrator, writer and artist, including receiving the one-time designation as a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association. He is now retired from seeing patients. He lives on the Milwaukee area’s north shore and is a regular contributor to the Chronicle.