This month, on January 25th, we will celebrate what might appear to be one of the most unusual holidays of the Jewish year: Tu Bishvat, literally “the 15th of (the month of) Shevat,” but better known as the New Year of the Trees. The Mishnah designates this date as the birthday of the trees. It was important in ancient days to know how old a tree was in order to observe certain mitzvot. In the days of the Temple, these and offerings were made based upon the new fruit of the trees; fruit gathered from the previous year’s produce could not be used for the current year’s offering.
After the destruction of the Temple, we found other ways of celebrating Tu Bishvat. For example, today we might plant trees in Israel under the auspices of the Jewish National Fund or participate in a Tu Bishvat seder.
Trees are a symbol of life and, indeed, the Torah itself is called the “Tree of Life.” By celebrating this holiday, we are connected to Israel, to nature, and to our Torah. Many today, see this holiday as sort of a Jewish Earth Day, a day which reminds us to take care of the environment.
In his commentary, “This Was Not Just a Matter of Chance,” Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz teaches the following:
“…There are three key values our traditions teach us about caring for the environment.
One: The World Is Not Ours to Do with as We Wish – It Is God’s
The Psalmist sang that the ‘the earth is the Eternal’s and all that it holds’ (Psalm 24:1). As mortals we are reminded by our traditions that we take ‘possession’ of the earth not as its owners, but merely as renters. To take seriously the no on that we lease the land from God means that we are not completely free to do with it as we wish.
In Genesis 2:15 humans are commanded to ‘work’ and to ‘keep’ the earth (l’ovdah ul’shomrah). The Hebrew laavod really means ‘to serve’ and also has the implication of ‘to pray.’ Caring for the planet, therefore, is an act of worship of the Divine. And lishmor means ‘to guard.’ Here again, the choice of words is significant. A guard does not own what he or she is watching, but only is entrusted with its care. That is our task – to watch over a world that we bequeath to our children and grandchildren.
Two: We Do Not Control the World, We Are Part of It
Shabbat is the day of rest, a me set aside to avoid labor, and among the categories of work traditionally avoided on Shabbat are sowing and plowing (Mishnah Shabbat 7:2). In essence, one is not allowed to garden, not even to water plants, on Shabbat. The reason can be explained in its historical context: in the biblical world most Israelites were farmers, so caring for the land was work. But this law has a deeper ethical intent. On this day we are not allowed to alter our environment, to do anything that makes us think we control the world. Rather, on Shabbat we are to humbly appreciate the beauty and majesty of the world around us…
…What is important is the ethical value of Shabbat as a day to connect more deeply with the natural world and its own rhythm.
Judaism’s belief in one God, the Creator of the universe, demands a sense of unity to all existence…we are forced to the conclusion that we are one with the world around us.
Three: We Must Be Responsible in the Exercise of Our Power
Every living thing changes its environment. Humans alone, however, have the ability to exert such far-reaching changes on the earth as a whole. But with this power comes responsibility.
Judaism teaches that we are stewards of our planet. Stewardship implies a unique role and place that we humans occupy, but it does not mean we can act at will. In the biblical account of the Creation, after humanity is created God says, ‘Fill the earth and tame it’ (Genesis 1:28). The word v’chivshuha (translated in The Torah: A Modern Commentary as ‘tame’), generally translated as ‘master’ or ‘subdue,’ is o en misunderstood as a sanction on to do to the environment whatever we wish. The fifteenth-century commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno clarifies what God implies here – that we must use our intelligence to protect the world…” [“Reform Voices of Torah,” Parashat Bo, January 26, 2009 / 1 Shevat 5769]
Wishing you and your loved ones a Happy Tu Bishvat!