After creating the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake, I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world — for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.”
— Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah
There is perhaps no better time for celebrating the awesome beauty of the earth than Tu B’Shevat, which this year falls on February 7.
It’s easy to rejoice in springtime, when greenery is bursting forth and the air hums with life. But to truly appreciate nature, it’s important to notice its raw potential, the latent energy inside a dormant shell.
In his book “Seasons of Joy,” Arthur Waskow writes that the biblical commandment of ba’al tashchit, or “do not destroy,” has special importance at Tu B’Shevat, when nature is at its most fragile.
“So deep winter, when trees and other vegetation must struggle to begin again, may be a specially appropriate moment to commit ourselves to protect the environment and to renew the flow of nature’s life in our own generation, when it is most in danger,” he writes.
The Torah designated Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, as a time for Jews to renew their commitment to God, and to share the yield of the land with those less fortunate.
After the exile of the Jews from Israel, Tu B’Shevat became a day for Jews to celebrate their connection to Eretz Yisrael. It signifies the time in Israel when the sap begins to rise and new fruit grows on the trees. Fruits associated with Israel — especially carob, pomegranates, olives and figs — are eaten.
The medieval Kabbalists viewed eating a variety of fruits on the holiday as a way of repairing one’s spiritual self. They envisioned the sparks of holy light hidden in the fruit being freed from their shells and rising up the ladder to return to their heavenly source.
The Kabbalists described their philosophical construct of the Sephirot — the 10 mystical emanations of the divinity — as having the form of a heavenly tree, or ladder. For them, trees represent the Tree of Life, which brings blessings to the world. To encourage tikkun olam, the repairing of the world, the 16th-century Kabbalists created a Tu B’Shevat seder that was adapted from the Passover seder.
Fifteen different varieties of fruits and nuts are eaten, and four cups of wine are drunk. The wines range from white to pink to rose to red, the deepening shades representing the changing seasons.
In modern times, the holiday is also an occasion to reaffirm our commitment to preserving and protecting the trees, and by extension all of nature.
Modern celebrations of Tu B’Shevat generally include the planting of seedlings and tree saplings, or the purchase of trees to be planted in Israel. The Jewish National Fund holds its annual tree planting campaign at this time.
Some Hebrew schools and synagogues hold seders, while others encourage families to plan seders of their own at home. A Tu B’Shevat seder provides an opportunity to talk with youngsters about recycling and carpooling; conserving water, electricity, paper and other resources; and using environmentally safe products at home and in shul.
Shomrei Adamah, or Keepers of the Earth, is the oldest Jewish environmental organization in the country. The group offers a variety of publications to help families and other groups be more environmentally responsible.
In 1993, the organization published an ecological study guide in cooperation with Hadassah. “Judaism and Ecology” explores in detail the perspective of Halachah, or Jewish law, on man’s relationship to the environment. The two main commandments relating to the ecology are the aforementioned ba’al tashchit and tsa’ar ba’alei hayyim, or kindness to animals.
The book stresses the importance of striking a balance between dominion and stewardship, between reverence for nature and wanton destruction.
It suggests using Tu B’Shevat as an occasion to ask oneself — and, possibly, one’s children — these kinds of questions: How do we use trees and their products in our religious lives? Why is our most precious possession, the Torah, likened to a tree of life?
Despite Judaism’s long-held reverence for the earth, however, the modern environmentalist movement has sometimes been at odds with traditional Jewish teachings.
In his 1996 book “The Lost Gospel of the Earth,” California State Sen. Tom Hayden argues that over the centuries, human beings have lost their spiritual bond with the earth. Ancient tribal religions, which revered nature, were replaced by human-centered theologies, he writes. These religions — Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism — taught people to see themselves as dominant over nature.
Mr. Hayden calls for abolishing the traditional, biblical notion of dominion over nature, and replacing it with a sense of kinship with nature.
This is precisely the kind of thinking that has kept Orthodox Jews from embracing the environmental movement. Rabbi Barry Freundel, writing in the summer 1990 issue of Jewish Action, a magazine of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, warns that today’s ecological movement constitutes “a return to paganism.” Others quote Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers: “He who forsakes Torah for the contemplation of trees forfeits his life.”
Some Jewish thinkers, however, have sought out a middle ground, where one may both honor tradition and also protect the environment.
“The Jewish tradition acknowledges that human beings must live in the world and use its resources,” Carol Diament writes in the introduction to “Judaism and Ecology.”
“At the same time, humans do not own the world. In all humility, we must understand that we are the earth’s guardians, not its masters.”