A young boy had a special relationship with his favorite tree. He played in its leaves and enjoyed its shade. This made the tree happy because it had much to give. As the boy grew older he climbed its branches and built a fort inside it. The tree was glad to provide joy and pleasure for the child. When the boy grew up the tree gave its fruit to the young man to sell. It also gladly offered its branches for the young man to build himself a home. Several years passed and the tree surrendered its trunk for man to build a boat. When, as an old man, he came seeking one last gift from the tree, only a stump remained. So the he sat down on it, and rested.
Shel Silverstein’s familiar children’s story, The Giving Tree, has always been disturbing to me. Perhaps the author’s intent was to get us to consider our habit of excessive consumption. Perhaps he meant to get us to question our default-setting in how we humans, relate to the earth. Perhaps he meant to jog our conscience so that we would remember how deeply we really do care about our fragile little blue planet. We live most often on auto-pilot, but in our heart-of-hearts we want neither to consume the earth’s resources to depletion nor poison it beyond repair.
How relevant this story is as we witness the disastrous consequences of the continuously gushing oil-rig in the gulf of Mexico! How helpless and angry we feel as the days pile up and we consider its terrible impact on the health and lives of countless individuals and creatures! After watching so many important films like the March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, Wall E, Avatar and others, we wonder whether we’ve been positively changed or simply entertained.
Our ancestors described two models of relationship between human beings and the earth. In Genesis, man is given contradictory commands in relation to the planet–to be consumers and to be stewards. As the “crown of creation” man is at once called upon to subdue the earth and conquer it while also being warned to guard it and protect it. These opposing messages are confusing, yet we know that both inclinations exist within each of us, pulling us daily in both directions.
In the midrash, our sages tell a story about Honi the Circle-maker who planted carob trees for future generations. He responds to a passerby who comments on the uselessness of his endeavors saying that it did not matter that that particular tree would not bear fruit in his lifetime. Nevertheless he felt obligated to plant it because his own grandfather, and his before him, had also planted to benefit future generations. How can Honi serve as a model for us in sustaining hope for future? How can his example boost our sense of responsibility and connection to the earth and help us to renew our commitment to leaving a leave a legacy for those who will come after us?
How well are we fulfilling the mitzvah being stewards for the earth? The first stage of selichot is awareness. Only then can we articulate our insights by ‘fessing-up. Then comes responsible action, teshuvah. What teshuvah do we need to do in our relationship with creation?
During the final days of Elul, 5770, we will gather at BIJ on Selichot night to watch a timely film and contemplate what teshuvah (self-correction) we need to make in all our relationships, including our relationship with the natural world. We will consider and discuss whether we are prepared to organize our community to build a culture of sustainability for the future. Perhaps the time has finally arrived to call for an end to our dependency on fossil fuels. Will we use this moment of crisis to write and visit our congress people? Will we implore them to support the building of an economy that will sustain life on our planet by capping and reversing the effects of this global crisis?
I look forward to hearing your perspectives and sharing thoughts on this important issue.