February 10, 2023
There’s an old Jewish story that goes a little something like this:
Two neighbors were fighting over a piece of land; each was convinced that the land belonged to them, and they fought over it for a long time. Finally, to settle their differences, they called for the rabbi, and agreed to follow whatever decision she made.
The rabbi listened carefully to the first, and then to the other, and then the rabbi said, “Let’s hear what the land has to say.” The two neighbors brought the rabbi to the piece of disputed land. To their surprise, the rabbi leaned down, put her ear to the ground, and listened…
Nodding her head thoughtfully, she said: “I have listened, and the land says that it belongs to neither of you.”
“What!??!” shouted the two neighbors in unison.
“The land,” the rabbi explained, “says that you belong to it.”
From the opening verses of Genesis, we understand that there is a deep, reciprocal relationship between the natural world and human beings. One of the Torah’s first commandments given to humans is caring for the Earth, and being God’s partners in the ongoing work of Creation, which is not static but ever-unfolding. However, this sacred obligation does not stop there: the Book of Deuteronomy, amid instructions to the Israelites for entering the Promised Land, teaches: “When you besiege a city […] you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. You may eat from them, but you must not cut them down”. Based on this Biblical injunction, in numerous places, the Talmud augments our understanding of our responsibility to the Earth, adding this prohibition of needless destruction of nature, and specifically of trees: “Whoever destroys anything that could be useful to others breaks the law of bal tashchit – Do not destroy”. It is with these commandments in mind that we celebrate the holiday of Tu b’Shvat, known as the New Year (or birthday!) of the trees, which was last Sunday.
Tu b’Shvat (named so because it is the 15th day – the Hebrew letter tet = 9 + the Hebrew letter vav = 6 = 15 – of the Hebrew month of Shvat) has its roots (pun intended!) in the Mishna, where it is named as one of four “New Years,” marking major agricultural cycles in the ancient Near East. While the trees are decidedly still bare here in North America, this time of year is the beginning of spring in the Middle East. In Israel, the first almond blossoms have already opened, and the wildflowers are springing up everywhere!
While the Mishna does not specify how we observe this holiday, the Kabbalists, medieval Jewish mystics of Northern Israel, developed numerous rituals for many holidays, including for Tu b’Shvat. The Kabbalists understood Torah to be the “Tree of Life,” which roots us in Jewish tradition, nourishes and sustains us with its fruits or the wisdom of its content, and helps us branch out toward new understandings of ourselves and the world around us. The Kabbalistic Tu b’Shvat celebration was a seder, modeled on the better-known Passover seder, including 4 cups of wine and symbolic fruit, representing different aspects of nature, of fruits and their trees, and of ourselves.
These days, Tu b’Shvat is celebrated as a Jewish Arbor Day or Earth Day, as an opportunity to express gratitude for all that trees provide for us, and to savor and appreciate the beauty and bounty of the Earth. Tu b’Shvat is also a time to explore what Jewish tradition can teach us about our responsibility to preserve and protect the Earth. And with the reminder that the Earth doesn’t belong to us, but rather, that we belong to the Earth, many Jews see Tu b’Shvat as the perfect opportunity to take action for climate justice and advocate for better sustainability policies locally, nationally and globally.
Rabbi Jennifer Queen