Tu Bishvat: The Roots Of Torah

As children, we cherish the opportunity to climb a tree. So too, we strive to ascend Torah, grasping its multiple branches of interpretation and reaching for higher meaning.
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"It is a tree of life to those who hold it close and all of its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths lead to peace." --Proverbs 3:18

This was one of the very first Hebrew songs I learned. Even as a young child, I knew it was special because it was the melody we sang as we ushered the Torah back into the aron hakodesh -- the holy ark where it is kept.

As we approach Tu Bishvat -- the Jewish New Year of the trees -- I am particularly drawn to this piece from Proverbs. Attributed to King Solomon, the book of Proverbs was written during a time when even our royalty was more innately connected to the earth than your average suburban or city-living Jew today. King Solomon -- and most who lived in ancient Israel -- surely understood the tremendous power of the metaphor associating Torah with a tree. Just as a tree has roots and branches, so too does Torah. Its roots date back some 3,300 years, to the Jewish narrative of Mt. Sinai -- and even earlier, to the formative stories of our people that it tells. Its branches stretch well into the future, carrying generations of Jews who have, through the process of intellectual debate and spiritual discovery, enabled Judaism to evolve and continue to speak the language of modern society. Just as a tree produces fruit, so too does Torah. This fruit comes in the form of mitzvot, or commandments -- active ingredients in a recipe for purposeful living. As children, we cherish the opportunity to climb a tree. So too, we strive to ascend Torah, grasping its multiple branches of interpretation and reaching for higher meaning.

Our rabbis' decision to celebrate this metaphor offers a good hint not only at how their society felt about the Torah, but also how they related to trees. The Torah is precious. We hold the Torah, kiss it before and after we read from it, and do everything we can to prevent it from falling. So too, we understand that we must care for our trees. We can swing from their branches, but we must be careful not to break them. We can eat from their fruit, but we are forbidden from destroying the forests they comprise.

This Wednesday (the 15th of Shevat on the Hebrew calendar), Jews around the world will celebrate Tu Bishvat. First documented in the Mishnah in about 200 C.E., Tu Bishvat falls in the midst of winter, when trees are bare -- not a time when one might expect a holiday that celebrates the glory of nature. And yet, maybe that is the very reason why this date was so aptly picked. It is at this time, when we are not necessarily cognizant of the beauty of the trees around us, that we most need a holiday to remind us of their ultimate potential. In this midway point of winter, the sap begins to travel up the roots, enabling the buds to form and flowers to bloom in the coming months of spring. Once spring arrives, we will likely be more cognizant of our relationship with the natural world, but during the winter we need a nudge to remind us of the glorious process of renewal that lies ahead.

During the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, Tu Bishvat was a day devoted to the very practical goal of declaring the age of trees for tithing purposes. In the 17th century, the kabbalists in Tzfat created a Tu Bishvat Seder. Modeled after the Passover Seder, this Tu Bishvat ritual was an effort to bring to life the verse from Deuteronomy 20:19: "For a person is like the tree of the field." In celebration of fruit-bearing trees, throughout the seder participants eat various fruits that symbolize different aspects of themselves. Participants begin by eating fruit with a hard shell, such as pomegranates, almonds and walnuts, thereby honoring our natural human need to protect our inner core. Participants then partake of fruits that have no outer shell, but do have a pit -- such as olives, dates, plums and apricots. These fruits symbolize our inner soul, and the attention we must give to cultivating the spark of Divinity that lies at our core. Participants then eat fruit that has neither a shell nor a pit -- such as grapes, figs, apples and carob. These fruits symbolize the human intellect, which the kabbalists envisioned as both open and unprotected. When we engage in intellectual discovery, we mirror God in continuing to create and build the world we have inherited. Through the act of eating significant fruits at the Tu Bishvat seder, the kabbalists believed we were releasing essential inner sparks of the Divine, and connecting in new ways with the spiritual realm.

In recent years, Tu Bishvat has been adopted by environmentalists as a Jewish earth day of sorts. Through an effort to combine Jewish spirituality and environmental action, Jewish environmentalists have stood alongside other religious activists in using a sacred voice to advocate for the future of our planet.

The midrash from Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:19 reads, "When God created Adam, God took him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: 'See how wonderful and praiseworthy all of my creations are. Everything I have created, I created for you. Be careful not to destroy My world; for if you destroy it, there is no one who will fix it after you.'"

This midrash was written 1,300 years ago, yet it could not ring more true for us today. We are in the midst of environmental crisis. We must make thoughtful, resolute steps if we wish to live in a world with clean air, edible and healthful food, and a stable climate. The vitality of creation depends on our ability to find sustainable ways of stewarding our planet, and this will only come through a combination of personal commitments and governmental legislation.

This year Tu Bishvat also falls during the week of the Interfaith Power and Light National Preach-In on Global Warming. The preach-in is an effort to encourage religious leaders throughout our nation to speak to their communities about the devastating impact we continue to have on our planet. As we humans engage in the burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and problematic agricultural and industrial activities, we unleash billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the environment. This carbon dioxide mixes with water vapor and other gasses in the atmosphere, trapping heat like the glass on a greenhouse and creating devastating climate change here on earth.

The Rev. Sally Bingham, Founder and President of IPF, asserts that religious leaders not only have a responsibility to speak the truth, but also have a unique ability to reach those who have not yet thought deeply about these issues. She tells congregants that the environment is not a political issue, but one of theology -- "It's a matter of life and death." People often respond by saying: "I've just never thought of it like that -- this means something to me and is going to make a difference in my life and the way I behave."

This is the essential message of Tu Bishvat. In Judaism, we do a lot of thinking, debating and reflecting -- but the beauty of Judaism is that it is not simply esoteric and spiritual; it is also grounded and practical. Ideally, all of these discussions lead us to action that will improve our communities and our world. On Tu Bishvat, we should certainly take time to appreciate the trees and eat their marvelous fruit, saying blessings and engaging in rich discussion about symbolism and meaning. But if our celebration ends there, we have missed an important call. The festivities of Tu Bishvat must also propel us to take an account of our carbon footprint and recommit ourselves to environmental action -- both through personal reform and national advocacy -- before it is too late.

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