We are almost five months into the Jewish year of 5776. Although we celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the Jewish New Year, our tradition teaches that it is actually the New Year for the whole world. The New Year for the Jewish people is Passover, the holiday that celebrates our emergence as a free people. Our secular New Year celebration on December 31st dates back to a Roman pagan celebration. Although now a mostly secular occasion for parties and football, it still provides an opportunity for reflection.
In the midst of these opportunities for introspection, there is another important Jewish New Year that sneaks its way into our otherwise quiet winter calendar. This holiday, known as Tu B’Shevat, or the New Year for trees, takes place on the eve of January 24th or the Hebrew date of the 15th of Shevat. In the time when the Temple was in existence, it served a number of important purposes. The Torah states that no fruit should be eaten during the first three years of a tree’s life. In addition, Jews living in Israel during the time of the first and second temple were required to give a tithe, a tenth of their produce, to the Levites who spent their days devoted to temple service and had no land holdings.
How did one know when a tree was three years old and its fruit permissible to eat?
How did Jews know when the harvest cycle began for purposes of donating a third of each harvest? Tu B’Shevat served as the marker for the new season and the birth date of every new tree from the prior year.
Over time, Tu B’Shevat developed additional layers of meaning. For the Kabbalists, it was a time to reflect on the
secret power of God’s role in creation. With the celebration of a special Seder created for that day, they hoped to cling to God and become partners in the secrets of creation.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Halutzim, early settlers of the modern state of Israel, took Tu B’Shevat as their own day of inspiration. They celebrated their return to the land of Israel and the holy work of creating new life out of the dust of the desert. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) used the holiday to connect Jews outside of Israel to the land. Diaspora Jews were asked to donate money in order to partner with the Halutzim to turn the desert into a green paradise.
For us, so far removed from agrarian lifestyles, Tu B’shevat has become a minor holiday once again. But its message remains as essential as ever. It teaches us that our connection to our planet however frayed is as important as it has ever been. It gives us an opportunity to celebrate the fragile diversity of Earth’s resources and to consider the ways we can preserve them. At a time when environmental responsibility has become a divisive and partisan political conversation, Tu B’Shevat reminds us that it should be a conversation that unites people of religious and cultural differences.
Freed from the battle of specific policy conversations, the holiday can bring us back to some core human ideals. This planet is a gift that we were given. Every day, we are confronted with seemingly simple lifestyle choices that have far reaching consequences in ways that we cannot imagine. Whatever our personal responses to this crisis, Tu B’Shevat reminds us that we are not free to abstain from the conversation. Just as our other New Year’s opportunities challenge us, so does Tu B’Shevat challenge us to consider the consequences of our daily choices.On Sunday morning, January 24th at 11 am, our Religious School Students will take part in a special Seder that will connect their lives and choices to the cycles of nature. Please free to join us if you are available and interested.
Our most precious gift, The Torah, is referred to every Shabbat as the Tree of Life.
However you choose to spend the day, please set aside some time to consider how each of us can be more thoughtful about the steps we take each day as we dwell upon this Earth, this precious Tree of Life.