“If the Covid-19 pandemic were happening to the ancient Israelites, we would be stuck with an annual holiday where we have to stay inside home for a month.” So goes a recent meme, which is both hilarious and true.
From the beginning of life until death, and for more than 3,000 years, Jewish life has been determined by a series of rituals. Every year during Passover, we eat matsot (unleavened bread) for a week to remind us of when we were slaves in Egypt. On Sukkot, we sit in huts to remember our ancestors' shelter in the wilderness. And just before Purim, we fast to honor the sacrifice that Queen Esther made for her people. Then, less than a day later, we partake in a large meal honoring the miracle.
Everything happens in cycles.
The cycle of life. The cycle of each four seasons. The holidays that make up the Hebrew calendar. The weekly cycle culminates with a day of rest, Shabbat.
Every food we eat should be blessed.
Everything has a reason. Generally, the source of wisdom is the Torah, but there are explanations in the Talmud and in the mystique of the Kabbalah. If this wasn't enough, some Jewish philosophers and rabbis have written countless pages of interpretations from the original scriptures.
Our sacred texts even have a unique story to tell us about humanity’s obligation to improve the world.
It is not surprising that our relationship with the Earth involves rituals that reaffirm our special bond. From the first lines of the Torah, we learn about the creation of the world, and we are commanded “to work it and to protect it.” (Genesis 2:15) Complying with these precepts was easy prior to the industrial era, when it was evident that the survival of humankind depended on nature to provide food, shelter and other basic needs.
During the Industrial Revolution, we started to lose our connection to the land. Our relationship with the planet became distorted, even abusive. Pesticides, factories, carbon emissions, relentless exploitation of natural resources, deforestation, and pollution of the seas and lakes are just a few examples of the deterioration humans have caused to our own home. We are biting the hand that feeds us, and we are witnessing the consequences.
On 16 January we will celebrate Tu Bishevat, the new year of the trees. This Jewish holiday, which has evolved over centuries, has never been more vital or significant than it is today. For instance, deforestation drives climate change and limits biodiversity.
With its rich heritage and history of respect for nature, Judaism is in a unique position to provide a roadmap to an environmental conscience future. This is an opportunity to step away from politics, reflect and infuse an ancient tradition with new meaning.
Moreover, it is the year of Shemittah (sabbatical), which calls for allowing the ground to rest: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather its yield, but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow.” (Exodus 23:10-11) Fallowing allows the land to recover and store organic matter while retaining moisture.
We should take this opportunity to reflect that we were given our planet as a gift, and we should work to preserve it. It’s the Jewish thing to do, the right thing to do, the most human action we can take.
Let's treat nature with respect, empathy and justice. After 3,000 years, if we can still chew matsot for a week to celebrate freedom, we sure can take guidance from Judaism to save our beautiful planet.
Sara Galico is a member of the WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps, the flagship program of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), which empowers new generations of Jewish leaders, a global network of more than 350 members from 60 countries.