By Josh Stempel
This week, I heard an amazing story about Alex Weber, a California teen living near Carmel:
‘”My dad raised me underwater,” says Weber, and she means it. She’s a free diver: no scuba tanks; she just holds her breath. She was diving in a small cove and looked down and saw something weird. “You couldn’t see the sand,” she recalls, still sounding incredulous. “It was completely white.”’
Turns out, the sea floor was covered with golf balls!! She salvaged thousands of them using her kayak, and noticed how badly they smelled – not like rotting food, but that new car smell – a chemical smell. She reached out to a Stanford University professor researching ocean plastic to share her findings. You can hear more about her work here.
Hearing this story, I immediately thought about Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. There is after all, a kelp forest off the coast in Carmel, and Tu BiShvat compels us to value trees.
In the Midrash Tanhuma Kedoshim begins a long discussion based on Leviticus 19:23, “And when you come into the Land, you shall plant.” One part of the story features Hadrian, a Roman King, with his army on the way to war. He happens upon an old Israelite planting fig trees. Hadrian asks, “How old are you? Do you expect to see the fruit of these fig trees you go to all this trouble to plant?!” The Israelite responds, “If not, then like my ancestors labored for me, so I labor for my children and grandchildren.” This Israelite might not see the fruits of his labor in his lifetime, but he plants now so that his children and grandchildren may benefit from his work.
So, what’s the first thing you do when you establish a new home in a new land: Setup camp? Build a house? No, you plant a tree for the future!
Over the centuries, Jews have planted millions of trees in the Land of Israel. Our responsibility to Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, takes the long view – we do what is good for today AND tomorrow. We care for the present and the future, and, on Tu BiShvat, we focus our Tikkun Olam on trees, agriculture, and the natural environment.
As we celebrate Tu BiShvat, what will you plant? Here are some ideas:
- Find something that suits your local climate and habitat – the average temperature, rainfall and soils – for your own backyard, your school, or your synagogue.
- Maybe you want to connect with the Tree People to find a way to replace trees lost by the terrible fires in Southern California this past year.
- Or, like Alex, you might think about how you could protect California’s kelp forests from plastic, like golf balls or straws.
Josh Stempel is the lead instructor for the Teen Tech Entrepreneurship Workshop at Sci-Tech West this summer. He edited and published GreenMyParents and has over 15 years of experience in sustainability, education, and business.