Last year I had to do something I truly hate: cut down a tree. The derecho storm that swept through our area in June brought down large, heavy branches that damaged our shed and could have done major destruction to our house if they had fallen at different angles. So we consulted an expert who recommended we remove the large offending tree.
I was loath to cut down the beautiful poplar, knowing Judaism’s love and concern for trees. Deuteronomy 20:19 commands:
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?
The Torah here refers to trees that are not fruit-bearing, but the question it asks is so poignant: we must go out of our way to protect trees because they cannot get out of our way.
I felt that I was committing some kind of sin as the workers came to take down the tree. I did feel better when they showed me the extensive rot all throughout the trunk and branches. It was only a matter of time before the tree would have come down, and who knows what kind of damage it could have done. Surely the Torah’s instruction to protect trees does not extend to putting yourself in danger.
And yet, I still wish I could have the poplar back. Our world is in need of more trees, not less. Not only do they have the potential to capture carbon from the atmosphere, prevent erosion and flooding, and cool our surroundings. They also may actually be intelligent, communicate, and care for one another.
Today is Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of the trees, when we celebrate the beauty of nature that surrounds and nourishes us. Trees are amazing organisms that are so familiar, we think we know them, but we are just barely scratching the surface of our understanding.
Last week the world’s richest person, Elon Musk, tweeted that he is “donating $100M towards a prize for best carbon capture technology”, and a number of people replied with some version of “how about a tree?” The exchange is emblematic of 21st century discourse and the desire to find a technological solution to every problem. Why spend the time and money to invent a machine, when the solution already exists and would provide many more side benefits?
The state of Israel is famously one of the only nations in the world that entered this century with more trees than it had a hundred years ago. That fact speaks to the tremendous effort the Jewish National Fund has put into planting forests and is a great accomplishment for the country. But the flip side is disheartening for the rest of the world which has fewer trees than a hundred years ago. Now more than ever it is time for us to create more forests; they could save our lives.