Virtual Talmud

Monday night begins Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees. According to Jewish tradition, God judges trees’ productivity for the coming year. Our trees are in trouble and so is our world. That should worry us every day of the year and particularly on Tu B’Shevat.
This worry is mobilizing many to “go green.” Most of these initiatives are volitional: We do them out of the goodness of our heart, not because we must.

Out Talmudic sages make an interesting point about volition. They say volition is good but not as good as doing something one is obligated to do. Our sages understood human nature: that we generally prefer to in control of our own lives, but that the good of the world often depends on us giving up some of our volition to obey rules for the common good. Doing so is praiseworthy precisely because it is hard for us to do.
If so, is it then enough to just recommend environmentally responsible behavior or must it be required? Since, as Jews, we are required to tend the Earth, should carbon offsetting be a religious obligation, a mitzvah (not in the “good deed,” but in the full obligatory sense of the word)?
There is some debate about carbon offsetting: that it assuages guilt without stimulating real change. We do need to reuse, reduce, and recycle. In my home we lower the thermostat, turn off lights, try as much as possible to buy local produce and bulk staples (to reduce shipping and packaging), wrap lunches in reusable containers, recycle, bundle our errands, and take other energy saving steps to lower our carbon footprint. (See the COEJL website for more ideas.) For those who can walk to services on Shabbat, doing so is a double mitzvah, remembering the Sabbath and helping to protect the Earth.
But there are times when we cannot walk to where we need to go. There are places I need, or want, to go, whether it’s going on vacation, visiting family and friends, attending conferences. It is not only that I want to assuage my guilt in such travels, I also want to channel the guilt I feel into something that actually helps fix the problems my participating in modern society creates.
This is a very Jewish view, the basis for our concept of teshuvah, tzedakah and tikkun olam: that we can make change (teshuvah) in our lives and in this world and where we cannot exactly rectify the impact of our deeds, we can compensate for them through charity and just deeds (tzedakah) and in doing so we help repair the world (tikkun olam).
In this context, carbon offsetting should be a mitzvah, not just a “good deed.”
When we do those things that we feel we must–or just really, really, really want to do–then the least we can do is carbon offset the impact of those actions. Planting trees is one way to do that. Indeed, planting trees in Israel for Tu B’Shevat–and year round–is a venerated tradition. But a better way to carbon offset is to support organizations like Terrapass, which retire carbon credits from the marketplace (truly reducing CO2 production) and invest in alternative energies.
The changes we make in our personal lives become multiplied geometrically when we introduce them into our corporate lives, our congregations, our businesses, and our governments. Scientists do believe we have a chance to rescue our planet before it is too late, but only if we act now. Tu B’Shevat is a great day to start.

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