On the Birthday of the Trees, the Trees Bring the Gifts

For one thing, tonight is Rosh Hodesh Shevat, the start of the month when we celebrate, exactly two weeks from tonight, Tu Bishevat, the new year of trees. As a rabbi, and especially as a rabbi who is blessed to hang out with Jews of all ages, Tu Bishevat is hard to miss. There are herb seeds and planting mix to order, stories to read, songs to learn, a Tu Bishevat seder to plan, tables to fill with the fruits of trees, the fruits of the trees of Israel in particular.

But how is it, by what spirit of genius does our sacred calendar know that this is exactly what we need at this time? How subtle our sages to recognize that—coming out of the festively-lit darkness of Hanukkah, out of the extended party that every culture manages to throw during the darkest time of the year, emerging into the cold, only dimly-growing light of these lengthening winter days (how subtly attentive of our forebears, to see that)—what our souls crave in the midst of this great freeze, with much of the natural world in suspended animation, is the promise of new life, reminders of the smell and feel and taste of a world still some weeks or months off, a world bursting with warmth and color, where all the land shimmers with the soft green of infant vegetation? How nimbly our tradition seems to know just how to provide it, transforming this moment of provoking dormancy in nature into a threshold barely containing the possibilities brimming at its verge: everything born after this day is new fruit of a new year.

And, after all, in the beginning, that’s all Tu Bishevat was. A day for accounting, for re-setting the annual calculation and collection of tithes, the 10 percent due from each Israelite to the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. A day for accounting the age of trees, too, and for calculating when a tree is mature enough to be harvested. With the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of exile and diaspora, these practices were largely lost. But slowly, over the course of time, a fuller meaning emerged for Tu Bishevat. Now it encompasses everything from the Kabbalists’ mystical model of trees as agents of unification for the divine presence, which shattered into countless shards at the moment of the world’s creation; to the 2000-year longing of the Jewish people in exile for Israel and its flowers, its fruits; to the reclamation and resettlement of Israel by the early Zionist chalutzim, the pioneers, much of which manifested itself as re-forestation projects that continue to this day.

For me, the true wisdom of Tu Bishevat lies back on that threshold I mentioned a few minutes ago. Its liminal, neither-here-nor-there quality, combined with the clear expectation that the natural world, and we with it, will soon step over, move forward, grants us both an opportunity for reflection and a challenge to action. This is our time to coolly assess where we are without despairing over what we have lost.

And we have lost a lot, as we always do, every year, and perhaps this year, more: to the fires and the floods, and the ineluctable tides of time. Sentimental objects and sidelined opportunities and souls, oh, the souls! Lost to our own families, to the families of service-men and –women who continue to die in decade-old wars; souls lost to gun violence, and vehicular accidents, and the list could go on and on. We, as a society, tolerate these losses, because it seems impossible to make the changes that would be necessary to prevent many of these losses.

As a society, we wreak this carnage with our own hands—as if the impersonal progress of virus, bacteria, cancer cells, or natural disaster weren’t already killing enough of us for our liking—and most of the time we manage not to think about it.

But then it is January. It is Tevet, and the Hanukkah candles have become a flickering memory, or it is Shevat, and the cold, scattered glare of mid-winter days falls mercilessly on us all, like daggers, and we are forced to see who we are and what we have done. And, lest we go mad, or despair, neither of which Jewish tradition encourages, we crave the shelter, the grace, the embrace, the return of trees in full flower. Trees return to us what we have lost.

As I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about trees.

One of my family’s cats died on Sunday, quite suddenly, though he was very old. The children had questions, of course, unanswerable questions, and as we planned to bury poor old Shep in the backyard, I thought, we need to plant a tree. Sheppie’s body will make fertile the ground to nourish a tree, and so the tree gives Sheppie back to us, in a different and wonderful form. We haven’t picked out our tree yet, but we will soon, and the girls are comforted.

Why do we so love to plant trees? Memorial trees, celebratory trees, honorary trees. Trees for shelter, trees for shade, trees for fruit. Trees, as Robert Frost has taught us, for swinging. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin writes, rhetorically: “Try to imagine paradise without trees.” Why do we love trees so?

There are practical reasons. Trees take one of the primary waste products of human life and activity, carbon dioxide, and return it to us as oxygen, one of the necessary requirements for human life.  Trees drain swamps, control mosquitoes and flooding, stabilize soil, filter and maintain groundwater. Organizations such as Sustainable Harvest and Trees for the Future have planted millions of trees around the world, providing work and wealth, food and other resources in deforested, impoverished communities around the world that had neither.  (These organizations, by the way—working for economic justice, dignity, and freedom for people around the globe—are linked in their efforts with those who fight modern slavery by working toward fair trade practices in the chocolate or tomato industries.)

But there’s more. According to the website for Million Trees LA, Research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference (AAAS) in Chicago has showed that the presence of trees could cut crime by as much as 7%. And researchers from the University of Illinois concluded that trees have the potential to reduce social service budgets, decrease police calls for domestic violence, strengthen urban communities, and decrease the incidence of child abuse. Their research showed an 85% drop in the incidents of parents threatening their children with guns or knives in publicly subsidized housing projects when trees were part of the landscape, compared against projects surrounded by a landscape barren of trees. It makes me think we all need to start planting many more trees.

We have spiritual and figurative motivations for our love of trees, as well. Rooted securely in the ground, with branches brushing the very heavens, we envy trees their obvious place in the world and, simultaneously, their transcendence of the world. From branches to roots they span the distance between heaven and earth, forming a living bridge that we may climb to another realm of being. “It is a tree of life, to those who hold it fast,” we say of our Torah, our source of wisdom, “and all who cling to it will find happiness.”

One of the nicest (if not necessarily the truest) compliments I have ever received was to be compared, spiritually, to an overflowing cup, always giving, always full. How do I do it? My flatterer asked. Setting aside for a moment how my husband or children might answer this question, the first thing that came to mind in response to the image of the overflowing cup was the way in which a tree generates its own energy from the environment around it: sunlight, available water, air.  How do I do it? How do any of us do it? How do we go on every day, still working, still giving, still loving, in a challenging, painful world?

This time of year, when troubles both domestic and international, both physical and metaphysical, threaten to drain us with their stark, unavoidable persistence—like an ugly building you only notice after all the leaves fall from the surrounding trees, and then you see nothing else—we must plant, or make plans to plant, trees. We must celebrate our trees, as this jewel of a holiday, Tu Bishevat commands us to. And we must be like the trees, still living, still growing inside our diminished winter form, always refueling itself, finding nourishment and grace and freely bestowing our gifts, even in harsh conditions.

“If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone says to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah.” So taught Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, in Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31b.

Perhaps it is the planting of trees, in the earth, and in ourselves, that will bring redemption.

I have been thinking a lot about trees.


Rabbi Debra Kassoff
Temple Or Hadash
Fort Collins, Colorado
Rosh Hodesh Shevat: January 11, 2013