Chanukah to Tu b'Shevat

Wed, 12/31/2014 - 11:49am -- Rabbi Weill

Dear friends,

Our holidays are not merely points on a calendar; they are interlinking narratives.  On Purim we feel precariousness; a month later we celebrate G’d’s redemption. Passover’s redemption climaxes with Shavuot’s revelation of Torah.  Yom Kippur’s vulnerability is capped by Sukkot’s belief in divine providence.

We also detect a link from Chanukah, recently concluded, to Tu b’Shevat, on the horizon.  Chanukah describes a nes gadol, a “great miracle” of a tiny volume of oil lasting for eight days. Just as the ancients in Israel depended on olive oil for light, cooking, and lubrication, so do we depend on oil of a different sort for our energy needs, from cars to power plants.

We recently have enjoyed falling oil prices.  This year’s Chanukah miracle surely is the miracle of filling the minivan for less than $75. But we must understand the implications of our oil consumption. Cheap oil ought not blind us to the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels causes greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change. Despite its affordability and portability, burning oil negatively impacts the environment. 

This is where we can link Chanukah to Tu b’Shevat.  Chanukah is about oil and Tu b’Shevat offers a message of environmental protection. Contemporary celebrations of Tu b’Shevat frequently remind us of the Jewish mandate to honor creation and to be shomrei ha’adamah, protectors of the earth.

Torah and rabbinic literature clearly state our ecological obligations.  From Torah’s injunction not to destroy fruit-bearing trees during times of war (Deuteronomy 20:19), our sages articulated the mitzvah of bal tashchit, prohibition against wanton waste. And a midrash depicts G-d showing Adam the “praiseworthy” trees of the garden, and then admonishing, “Do not spoil [these trees], for there will be no one after you to fix what you have destroyed” (Kohelet Rabbah).

I understand that we will continue to burn fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.  As we turn to cleaner burning natural gas, I hope and assume the process of “fracking” will become increasingly safe.

But we should consider natural gas a “bridge fuel,” not a permanent solution.  Rather, we should increasingly use renewable forms – solar and wind, as well as nuclear – in order to wean ourselves from oil.

Chanukah is about that oil; Tu b’Shevat celebrates the warming sun. May we acknowledge the connection, thinking hard about the role oil plays in our lives, while we look forward to a sunny, solar-powered world.

With blessings,

Rabbi Jeffrey Weill