Today, Thursday, is the festival of Tu B’Shvat, the fifteenth of the Hebrew month Shevat, the day we celebrate the vast world of trees among which we are blessed to dwell. It’s a festival that has found deep resonance among our people for many centuries. The 16th century Kabbalists of Tsvat in northern Israel took what was mainly a reminder imbedded in the calendar to begin to prepare for planting, and created a seder for this day. In the next century a Haggadah Pri Aytz Hadar, “The Fruit of the Goodly Tree,” was born, to be followed, in our day, by many more. The Tu B’Shvat seder is filled with rituals using fruits and nuts and wine to welcome the onset of the planting season, the onset of spring (which in Israel is much sooner than in Central Missouri).
The tradition of a seder on Tu B’Shvat continues into our day, and, I have to say, I regret letting the day go by without such an event. I promise that next year, hopefully in person, we’ll join together at our place, itself surrounded by trees, to celebrate this day.
Tu B’Shvat has historically been tied to the project of replenishing the trees in Israel. Through the agency of the Jewish National Fund, millions of trees have been planted in Israel. Having a tree or trees planted in Israel in honor of one person or another, or one occasion or another has long been a practice of Jews in the Diaspora. I remember traveling through Israel and looking off in the distance at a hill. Half of the hill was filled with trees, while the other was bare. The bare side was awaiting the time when it, too, would be the recipient of the JNF project, to be filled with trees, perhaps one purchased in your honor, or that you purchased in honor of another. By the way, the eighteen or so dollars paid for a tree does not merit a plaque at the base of the tree. You probably know that, but many’s the time someone has come to Israel seeking just such a plaque. Not for eighteen bucks.
In recent decades, Tu B’Shvat has come to have deep meaning for us. As our environment undergoes its many travails, this day has become a time to both celebrate the beauty and complexity of the world’s environment as well as a moment to focus on what we need to do as Jews and as citizens of the planet Earth to heal it. It’s a moment when we pause and marvel at the dense complexity of a tree, what it is and what it does, of the irreplaceable role trees play in sustaining the world. We can use this day to reflect on what we need to do to set things right and restore the balance to our world.
So for now, as our trees are bare of leaves and winter is much upon us, let me suggest that you put on your mukluks, make your way to a tree, and spend a quiet moment in meditation. Observe the tree in its beauty and complexity and realize that that tree is our partner in creation, that the environment, being the only one we have, needs our heavy labor to keep it thriving, for ourselves and for our planet.
Rabbi Phil Cohen