Tu Bishvat is one of four Jewish New Year celebrations, specifically the “New Year for Trees” or Rosh Hashanah La’Ilanot. Originally, the date served as the start of the Jewish agricultural year, a calendar subject to a number of laws and practices regarding planting, harvesting, and tithing. For example, orlah, or the Biblical prohibition against eating the fruits of trees in their first three years of life, affords trees a solid growth period to ensure the success of later, mature harvests. In modern times, Tu Bishvat continues to mark a day of environmental importance in Israel, as it has become the national Arbor Day, celebrated by tree-planting en masse, a time-honored tradition in Judaism. Indeed, Israel is one of the only nations in the world to have entered the 21st century with more trees than it had one hundred years ago.
The holiday of Tu Bishvat offers time to reflect on Judaism’s relationship to the environment and its preservation, particularly in light of the dire state of our ecology at present. As Genesis recounts, human beings were formed from the very earth itself, and the name of the first human being, Adam, comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for earth, adamah. Our tradition sees humans as of the land and thus for the land, as both inhabitants and guardians.
We might see trees as the lungs of the Earth, and appreciate their value for providing food and shade, preventing soil erosion, braking the wind, and regulating temperatures. But perhaps they are equally important to us as humans for the contrast between us and them. Whereas trees by their very nature are rooted right into the earth, human beings need to strike roots into the earth willingly, out of conscious endeavor. On Tu Bishvat, we are called upon to take the time to cultivate these roots, to dig ourselves deep into the land, to feel its needs and respond to them. So important is this practice that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai instructed that should the Messiah come while we are engaged in planting a sapling, we must first finish the planting and only then greet the Messiah! So this year, let us all celebrate Tu Bishvat by redoubling our efforts to make environmentally-conscious decisions every single day. Recycle more, conserve more water, invest in renewable energy, or just go out and plant a tree!
by David Diamond, Guest Contributor