By Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz
This article is printed as part of the Tu b’Shevat Learning Campaign, sponsored by Canfei Nesharim, an organization that is educating the Orthodox community about the importance of protecting the environment.
Tu b’Shevat, the new year of the trees, is a good time to focus on the natural world. Appreciating the natural world can help us deepen our relationship with Hashem, through emunah (faith), love and fear of Hashem, and gratitude for all of our blessings.
The first seder (order) of the Mishna is the order of Zeraim, dealing with agricultural laws. Each seder of the mishna has a nickname, an alternative name. What is the alternative name for the order of zeraim? It is called the Order of Emunah, the order of faith and belief. Why is the order related to agriculture called “emunah”? Because when a person lives close to the land, that person understands very clearly how much we depend on it. The farmer knows how much he needs the rain and the sun, how much he relies on Hashem for the blessing of our natural resources.
Farmers know that they can do their best, but without Hashem’s blessings of the natural resources needed, there’s no guarantee of their success. Today, in golus, whether we have our own businesses or work for someone else, we are under the allusion that we can produce and gain our own success. We also tend to downplay our relationship with the earth and our dependence on Hashem’s blessing of our natural resources. But the farmer knows that’s not the case. His dependence on the land deepens his relationship with Hashem through “emunah,” faith.
Love of Hashem
We can also come to love Hashem through the marvels of creation. Respecting the universe, admiring the universe, seeing the wonder in our world can inspire us to love and be near to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. The Rambam writes that a person will come to love Hashem when he contemplates the magnificence of god’s universe. David HaMelech said, when I see Your stars and I see Your heavens, I realize, “What is man that you should remember him?”
When you realize what a gift Hashem has given us in the world, and begin to appreciate it, this leads both to love of Hashem and fear of Hashem. The Gemara teaches that at the end of a person’s life, that person will be called to account for the beauty of nature that Hashem created, that he did not enjoy.
You might recall the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, that says if a person is learning and he looks around and says ‘how beautiful is this tree,’ the Torah says he deserves to die. (Pirkei Avot, 3:9) How dare he stop learning to admire the tree, one might say. But Rav Shimson Raphael Hirsch’s interpretation of this is very beautiful. He says that the problem is he stopped learning to admire the tree, whereas in reality, admiring a tree should be part of his learning. In other words, the tree should elevate his religious consciousness, not distract from it.
Admiring nature brings us closer to a love of god. People like Einstein and others who study deeply into the complexity, and ultimately the beautiful simplicity of the universe, marvel at it, and this leads them to a great love of Hashem. By studying nature, they come to a deep sense that there is some supreme creator behind all of this.
Our obligation to appreciate of the environment includes not only our expression of love of Hashem, but also our expression of gratitude. Why are Jews called yehudim? It’s because we are descendents of Leah’s fourth child, after which she said, “Now I am grateful to Hashem.” Why was she grateful for her fourth child and not her earlier children? Rashi explains because she knew that Yaakov would have twelve sons. There were four wives, so she assumed they would each have three. When she had her fourth child, she knew she had received more than she deserved.
So you see that the very term Jew, “Yehudi” is he or she who is grateful, who is thankful, who feels that G-d has given them good things. The Sfas Emes says every Jew should go through life feeling that Hashem has given them more than they deserve, showing “hakaras hatov,” appreciation, for all that we have.
Appreciation to Creation
In addition to our gratitude to Hashem, there is also a concept that we even owe hakaras hatov to the animals and inanimate natural resources. For example, in the ten plagues of Egypt, the first plague was not carried out by Moshe, but by Aharon. Why? Rashi says that since the Nile had taken care of Moshe as a baby, he owed the Nile a debt of gratitude. As a result, it would be inappropriate for him to turn the Nile into blood. We have this concept of gratitude to that which takes care of us, even natural resources like rivers and rain.
Another example: On Shabbos, we cover the bread when we make Kiddush, because we don’t want to embarrass the bread. Normally, we begin a meal with hamotzi on the bread, but on Shabbos we begin with wine. In order to avoid embarrassment for the bread, that the wine comes first on Shabbos, we cover it. The reason is that we owe the bread gratitude; bread is the staff of life. Bread takes care of us, and consequently we have hakaras hatov that the bread shouldn’t be embarrassed. For that reason, we cover it up.
Today, perhaps our hakaras hatov to nature could include our responsibility to learn about the challenges being faced in the world today, and what we can do to appreciate and take care of the natural resources that take care of us.
By strengthening our relationship with nature, we can deepen our relationship and our appreciation of Hashem. This year on Tu b’Shevat, let’s take a few moments to appreciate our connections to the physical world, appreciate Hashem’s marvelous creation, and protect the natural resources Hashem has granted us.