Our lives on this beautiful planet depend on trees for oxygen, food, medicine, shelter, climate stability, habitat for wildlife and beauty. According to scientific research, planting billions of trees around the world could remove two-thirds of all harmful emissions caused by human activity. A global tree-planting program would be one of the most inexpensive and impactful ways to absorb carbon dioxide emissions and tackle the climate crisis.
The Rabbis of the Mishna (edited in 200CE) certainly did not have the climate crisis in mind when they established Tu Bishvat as a New Year for the Trees. But they built into the Jewish calendar a formal way to mark a mindful human relationship with trees, rooted (literally) in sustainability, gratitude, human self-restraint and responsibility. The Torah prohibits eating the fruit of a tree for the first three years of a tree’s life. In the fourth year, the fruit was given as a gratitude offering to the priests in the Temple and in the fifth year, the farmers could enjoy the fruit. The Rabbis of the Mishna established the 15th (T”U) of the month of Shvat as the birthday of all trees for the sake of marking these stages, and for the sake of ensuring that the trees could mature sustainably and that human consumption was framed by gratitude and generosity.
In the 16th century, the Kabbalists in Tzfat layered spiritual meaning onto Tu B’Shvat by creating a Seder that explored the four worlds or layers of reality – 1) the physical, 2) emotional, 3) mental/ consciousness and 4) spiritual realms. The Seder ritual they created carries its participants from the surface of things to their innermost essence, elevating and bringing healing to each realm. When they created this celebration, I don’t think the Kabbalists had environmental concerns in mind either, but they saw trees as ideal teachers to sensitize and awaken us to the work of creating balance, harmony and repair in all four realms, out in the world and in the layered reality within each of us. Just imagine what our world would be like if as much attention was given to the development of compassionate awareness and spiritual potential as we give to the development of physical resources and commodities!
For the Kabbalists, the trees all around us are echoes of the Tree of Life itself – the cosmic tree with its roots in heaven, its trunk channeling the flow of Divine Life into the world, and its branches and fruit containing the potential of all that exists. Just like at the Pesach Seder, at the Tu Bishvat Seder we don’t just talk about these ideas. We bite into them! With different nuts and fruits assigned to each of these four realms, we taste the trees. We internalize the gifts of trees and absorb them into our bodies. We savour the essence of the Tree of Life, the Divine spark, hidden in the shells and peels and set free through our intentional, sacred eating. With the sap beginning to rise in the trees in Israel, this is a month of awakening from sleep into activated potential. Trees have tremendous healing potential. What opportunities will you take this month to be nourished by the trees, to celebrate them, honour them and become their guardians?
Here are some suggestions:
*Hug a tree. If you’ve never done it, it might feel silly at first. Try it anyway. Find a big, old tree and wrap your arms around it. Remember that you inhale what the tree exhales and you exhale what the tree breathes in. Spend some time breathing together.
*Plant trees. Support reforestation efforts far away and in your own backyard.
*Gather a group of friends for a Tu Bishvat Seder on the evening of Sunday February 9th. Use resources from Hazon: A Jewish Lab for Sustainabillity – hazon.org
*Support Shoresh: Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil by joining me at Taking Root: Planting for the Future on Wed. Feb. 12th shoresh.ca/takingroot