An article about TuB’shevat popped up on my facebook feed this week. TuB’shevat - the Jewish Holiday celebrating the New Year of the Trees. Not the most prominent or talked about of Holidays. The synagogues are not packed and it may even pass without note for many. However, in the context of the world today it is quite poignant. In fact I might say it is underrated as far as holidays go.
On the topic of trees, I recently found my childhood copy of “The Giving Tree,” - a classic favorite about the love between a boy and a tree. I scanned the minimalist illustrations as the tree disappeared. Yet now as a more conscious adult the book revealed a somewhat destructive relationship void of giving, respect or gratitude.
As the boy goes to the tree throughout his life he takes all she has to satisfy his own desires. He takes her apples to sell for money, her branches to build a house, and her trunk for wood so he may build a boat and sail away.
The relationship between humans and nature is called out here. We are reminded of the responsibility we were given as a Jewish community to be caretakers of the environment and protectors of the earth – givers not takers.
Central to Jewish environmental thought is the commandment, “Bal Tashchit” - to not destroy or waste. It is said: “Thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an ax against them; for thou mayest eat of them but thou shalt not cut them down.” In this context the boy may have accepted the fruit from the tree, yet not have taken her branches and cut down her trunk for his own personal benefit.
Now at Tu B'shevat, the beginning of the agricultural year in Israel, the concept of Bal Tashchit calls on our ecological consciousness. It can also inspire an appreciation of nature in new ways – and is the only Jewish Holiday we forgo brisket and kasha for fruit and vegetables. Traditionally on Tu B’shevat there is a Seder with figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, grapes, wheat, and barley, or it is often commemorated by planting a tree in Israel in honor or memory of a loved one.
A Moment of Mindfulness
Today Tu B’shevat has grown into a day of environmental awareness. It is a time to remember to be more mindful of nature, and of how our choices impact the environment. As our society’s natural resources grow depleted, as fossil fuels rapidly affect climate change, and one-third of food produced is wasted, there is no better time to reflect personally: How have I been wasteful? How often have I bought what I didn’t need? When have I taken too much, and not given enough?
The significance and relevance of Tu B’Shevat also brings a larger moment of mindful awareness to the destruction prevalent in society today that lurks in many forms.
Tu B’shevat is a time to be conscious not only of how we may do better in the world, but also how we may do better within our own communities and relationships. It is a time to be aware of the damage we may contribute by our actions, our words, and our silence, and then a time to give, heal and repair.
As the boy visits the tree for the last time, now an old man, there is nothing left of her. It is a reminder reminded that our time here is short, and nature, fragile. boy has taken everything she once had. The tree is depleted, and has no more to give. Still, the tree offers the boy her stump to sit on, and the boy takes it.
On second thought, Tu B’shevat may be the perfect time to read “The Giving Tree” again.