If you are a child being raised Jewish in the United States, you will inevitably contribute to the planting of countless trees in Israel. This is not merely an account from my childhood but a proven fact – the Jewish National Fund has planted over 250 million trees in Israel since 1901. To say that trees are important in Judaism would be an understatement.
My father recently recounted the story of his childhood tree contributions. As a 22-year-old, he ventured across the world to Israel to work on a Moshav – an Israeli village – for two months. After his 14 hour flight, all he wanted was to do was find “his tree.” As an adult, he realized it was less about personally identifying his tree, and instead something bigger. A little over a week ago, I had the opportunity to celebrate the Jewish version of Arbor Day, Tu B’Shevat. This was my first acknowledgement of this holiday since my tree planting experiences as a child.
The Tu B’Shevat Seder was created in Safed, Israel by the Kabbalah movement in the 16th century. The festival marks the beginning of the spring season in Israel. The Seder was created to celebrate the spiritual significance of the fruit of the trees and vines. During the Seder that I attended, we drank four glasses of wine accompanied by dry fruits and nuts. Each glass represents a different realm of creation in the Kabbalist understanding of the universe. Additionally, our Seder invoked some unique interpretations of the holiday of the trees.
I am currently living on a reform Jewish Kibbutz that is making some enormous strides in the ecological field, and these concepts were cleverly interwoven throughout the Seder service. As a result of my naivety, I thought that the emphasis on ecology during the Seder was an original idea; however, there is evidence of ecological awareness throughout the Torah. This may seem like a trendy idea to some, but our ancestors were greatly aware of the connections between spirituality, nature and environmentalism.
Among other ecological mandates, the Torah outlines laws that tell us “to neither destroy wantonly, nor waste resources unnecessarily.” One is prohibited from cutting down fruit trees when surrounding an enemy city in wartime. There are laws for covering excrement, removing debris from public places, etc.
The Torah attributed importance to each element in nature, and we can learn a lot from these teachings in our modern society. Though the aforementioned concepts seem like common sense, in our world today, we have ignored much of this wisdom. I have now been studying at the kibbutz for over five weeks, and much of what we have learned with respect to ecological awareness and gardening practices can trace its roots to the writings of the Torah.
One of the participants in my program cleverly explained the connection among the spring Jewish holidays, Tu B’Shevat, Purim and Passover. As he put it, “Tu B’Shevat is the planting of the seed or idea, Purim is putting on the costume without commitment or experimenting with that seed or concept in your life, and Passover is the time for implementation.”
Similar to the planting of a new tree or the start of a new year, these fundamental holidays are a catalyst for change and reinvention of thought. Can we learn to grow from a lone tree to a forest? Can we be something bigger? It starts with a seed.