TU B'SHEVAT 5771
I welcome many of you who couldn’t make it last week because of the inclement icy weather. Those who did come were brave souls. It felt so good last Shabbos just great getting out of the house—despite the ice—because I had cabin fever all week as Atlanta was shut down. School was cancelled and few people made it to work. Even the postal service which takes pride, as their motto goes, “to deliver the mail in rain, snow, sleet or hail,” did not deliver my mail.
So it seems a little strange that we celebrated Tu Bishvat—the New Year of Trees which marks the beginning of spring in Israel—just 2 days ago. Perhaps it’s the genius of the Jewish calendar that it places Tu Bishvat in the dead of winter. At the very moment when our thirst for greenery is most overwhelming, the Jewish calendar has us focus on the trees that are beginning to blossom in Israel.
Tu Bishvat—the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat—is a unique little holiday. Originally, according to the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 2a), it was used to decide how old a tree is for purposes of tithing. Fruit of trees that blossom before this date are considered part of the previous year’s produce, while fruit that bloom after are viewed as part of the next year’s crop. This has important ramifications with regard to the 7-year cycle of tithes that apply to the produce of the Land of Israel.
Over the years Tu Bishvat became much more. In ancient Israel, a cedar sapling was planted for each boy born that year and a cypress for each girl. When there was a wedding, they took branches from the boy’s and girl’s trees and made the chupah. When Jews were forced into exile, they began eating the fruits of Israel on Tu Bishvat—figs, dates, almonds, olives, pomegranates and grapes. They told stories about Israel and sang songs about the land. The Kabbalists created a Tu Bishvat Seder. Thus Jews in the Diaspora strengthened the bond between them and the land of Israel that was so distant—both physically and politically in that it was almost impossible to live there or even to visit.
Today, Tu Bishvat in Israel is celebrated with magnificent pageantry in the planting of trees, while here in the Diaspora we continue to eat Israeli fruits, some like our Religious School even have a Seder and, of course, the buying of a certificate from the JNF for planting trees. You can do it so easily today if you didn’t get a chance on Tu Bishvat. Just go to jnf.org.
I think it’s remarkable that Jews celebrate trees—and by extension because of the balance of nature—the earth and all life upon it. From a Kabbalistic point of view, Gd created us so that He could have a relationship with us wherein He could demonstrate His goodness. The earth and all it contains was to create a place to facilitate that relationship. That’s why it’s all holy. That’s why the Torah (Gen. 2:15) commands us: l’avda ul’shomra, “to serve and protect” the earth.
Scientists tell us that the universe was created with a “Big Bang” of energy. On a deeper level, I call it, “Gd’s loving energy.” Science will tell you that all of matter is only a certain ordering of energy. Every molecule, for example, is composed of positive, negative and neutral charges. Since everything is composed of molecules, everything—humans, animals, vegetation, inanimate elements—on the deepest level are all composed of Gd’s loving energy. Trees are a composite of all of this in that they are living things that grow from the inanimate earth. Celebrating trees, expressing gratitude for trees is a great way of demonstrating our connection with Gd’s loving energy that created the trees, that created everything, that is within all of us. And so Kabbalah compares a human being to a tree based on the verse in the Torah (Deut. 20:19) Ki haadam eytz hasadeh, “For is the tree of the field a man?” And the verse from Psalm 1: v’haya k’eytz shatul al palgey mayim, “[man] shall be as a tree planted by the streams.”
Because everything is created from Gd’s loving energy, everything must be treated with respect and holiness. That’s why our sages were the earliest of ecologists and taught us that it’s sinful not to respect the ecology.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6) taught: It is analogous to a ship full of people sailing on the sea when one of them begins to drill a hole on the floor of his section of the boat. Said his fellows: “What are you doing!?”
Replied he: “What business is it of yours what I am doing? This is my section!”
Said they: “Of course it is our business when what you are doing is going to sink the boat and drown us all!”
And so it is with the ecology.
In Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer (34) it teaches that: “When a healthy tree is cut down, its groan is heard from one end of the universe to the other.” And the Talmud (Psachim 50b) teaches: “One who cuts down healthy trees, shall see no blessing in his lifetime.” And in reference to how trees feed us, give us oxygen, shade us and give us material to build our homes, the Midrash (Sifri, Dvarim 20:19) declares: “The life force of a person emanates solely from the tree.”
The land of Israel, as you know, was raped of its trees as they were cut down over the centuries by its occupiers and not replanted. The chalutzim pioneers of the early 20th century worked tirelessly to drain the swamps caused by the lack of trees and replant trees. Your dollars contributed to the JNF over the years has planted forest after forest from the north to the south of Israel. That’s one reason why the recent fire in the Carmel Forrest was so tragic. These trees were an expression of our love for the land and for Gd who gave us the land. In a sense, as we have learned, they are our life force.
There’s a story about Napoleon who came upon a shule in Eastern Europe during his conquests. It was Tisha B’Av and he saw hundreds of Jews sitting on the floor mourning the destruction of the 2 Temples in Jerusalem and the loss of their land. He then said, “A people, who after so many centuries, can still shed tears over the loss of its land and the destruction of its Temple, is bound to regain it some day.”
He would have made the same observation over a Tu Bishvat celebration. This hopefulness of the Jew, this stubborn defiance of logic, this undying faith in defiance of icy reality, is a great lesson of Tu Bishvat, for it teaches that just as the tree appears lifeless, dead and unable to weather the winter frost, yet, when spring comes, the impossible becomes matter of fact, so will his life—although frozen and ice-bound—blossom forth once again.
William Saffire in his book about Nixon, Before the Fall, tells of a meeting in the board room of the Federal Reserve attended by the WASP establishment. A debate took place between Federal Reserve Board chairman Arthur Burns and the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Herbert Stein—both Jewish—but neither particularly active or observant. Burns argues against Stein that a lower inflation rate was possible and he illustrated his point with a favorite anecdote:
In 1958 when he was economic advisor to Eisenhower, he had met Ben Gurion and asked him whether he listened to the advise of Israeli economists. Ben Gurion replied, “Never! They only tell me what is impossible—and then I have to go out and do the impossible.”
“But Arthur,” Stein said in the silence that followed, “in this case we're dealing with Gentiles.”
After a split second’s delayed take, says Saffire, the assembled Waspish bankers simultaneously broke into a roaring laughter.
As we celebrate Tu Bishvat this week, acknowledging our connection with trees, let us remember that with Gd’s loving energy that sustains us both, everything is possible. With courage, persistence and Gd’s help we can do the impossible. May peace and prosperity come to our beloved Israel and throughout the world. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis
Tu B'Shevat 5771