Preserve and Protect

Defying Entropy: The Challenge of Tu Bishvat

By Andrés Spokoiny

It takes just 13 seconds to chop down a tree with an ax. If you must know, New Zealander David Bolstad holds the world record of “underhand chop” at 12.28 seconds. With a mechanical saw, which is how most chopping occurs these days, it takes about half that (and the record for that is 5.085 seconds, held by American Matt Bush).

The disproportion between the time needed for a tree to grow and the time in which it can be chopped down is staggering. It takes 50 years for an oak to produce acorns, and roughly the same amount of time for a pine tree to reach maturity. This means that chopping one is 300 million times faster than growing one. Now think of the Pine Pinus longaeva, a North American conifer whose oldest specimen reached the ripe age of 4.844 years: It may be 31 billion times faster to destroy it than to grow it.

I’m writing these words in relation to the holiday of Tu Bishvat, also known as “the new year of the trees” so it’s only natural that we discuss trees. But there seems to be a universal law at play: Things that require ages to be built can be destroyed very fast. A bombing raid will obliterate a thousand-year-old cathedral with the same rapidity that an ax chops a tree. The same is true for relationships. Think of how hard it is to build trust and how that trust can be destroyed by a single word. The fact that it is so much easier to destroy than to build incentivizes the lazy: Think of how many political demonstrations are against stuff and how few are engaged in the long-term building of a positive vision.

Some have tried to explain all this with the Second Law of Thermodynamics aka entropy; meaning, the Universe always tends towards a chaotic and disorganized state, so when building, growing, etc. we are “swimming against the current,” and with just a small push, things revert to their chaotic “natural” state. It’s impossible not to think of this in relation to the current moment. What I, like many others, found terrifying on January 6 is how a delicate edifice of democracy that took 245 years to build and that required wars and incalculable resources to sustain, could have come crashing down in just a few hours. Thank God it did not, and thank God, decency, and courage on both parties prevailed. But the act of looking down the precipice was sobering and rattling. It put the fragility of all human constructs in evidence and made us realize the potential for destruction that our actions carry.

Revolutionaries of all stripes like entropy. They welcome “creative destruction,” away with the old so that a “new world” can emerge. Not surprisingly, their utopian dreams tend to end in tragedy and death, because the wanton destruction that they employ to get rid of the old does not have an “off” switch.

Judaism has always been different. Tu Bishvat reminds us of the need to painstakingly invest in growing, pruning, and caring for a tree before we can enjoy its fruits. But, it’s not just that we need to care for those trees so that we can enjoy their fruit later; it’s seeing ourselves as if we were the world’s custodians, the conditional tenants in God’s house. We can make improvements to that house, but we have a responsibility to pass it on to the next generation. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, referring to tree-chopping, paraphrases God, who says:

“I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you! As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property, you sin against Me!” (Horeb 6)

Trees here are, of course, just an example. The custodian attitude covers our relation to all creation, human or natural. It also applies to our tradition. Rabbi Zecharia Frankel, the father of the Conservative movement, said that regardless of whether the origin of Jewish law is Divine or human, the mere fact that Jews painstakingly built it and respected it over millennia demands that we relate to it with respect and responsibility. Even when a law seems anachronistic, said Frankel, we won’t just “eliminate” it; we will respect a process of precedents and jurisprudence so that Halacha (Jewish law) evolves organically, like … well, like a tree.

This doesn’t mean that all old constructs need to be preserved, but it demands that we look at the world with respect and reverence. It means understanding that entropy is lurking, waiting to reclaim the world, and that anarchy is a powerful torrent that we must try to keep at bay with a dam that needs constant caulking. As with trees, we contemporary Jews often play fast and loose with the things we take for granted: our relationships, our Judaism, our attachment to Israel, our environment, and lately, our democracy. Numbed by the comfort and stability that previous generations bequeathed us, we forget how fragile things are and how terrible the consequences can be when an existing order is destroyed. We forget how easily we can revert to the condition described by Thomas Hobbes in his “Leviathan,” one in which

“there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

You may say that destruction and chaos are not brought about by “the society” but by a few bad actors Maybe, and while guilty actors need to be punished, Judaism also teaches us that, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “In a free society few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Nothing happens in a vacuum.

May this Tu Bishvat of plague and upheaval remind us of the need to preserve and protect what we inherit, be it trees, traditions, or the freest and most prosperous system of government the world has ever known, and that so many fertilized with their blood and their dreams.

Andres Spokoiny is the President and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.