Tu b’Shvat, the new year for the trees, a Jewish celebration of nature and all that it does for us. A time for communities to come together to taste dried fruit, nuts and wine, and celebrate the natural world which surrounds us. But how do we celebrate this holiday knowing that we humans are failing to care for the world?
First, let’s look at why this holiday isn’t celebrated in the summer or spring when the trees are blossoming and fields are filled with color, but celebrated at the end of winter when the trees are empty and bare. Halachically, we celebrate Tu b’Shvat when the trees have stopped receiving winter rains, and have started to produce fruit. But why don’t we celebrate the fruit at the end of summer, when we have been eating them for months and enjoying the different varieties available and the benefit that they bring us? Spiritually it makes sense to mark Tu b’shvat at the end of winter, as this is when we most appreciate the blossoms and new fruits – after all, absence makes the heart grow fonder, for both trees and people. This is the time that we are most excited for a new season to begin and we are ready for a change in our lives.
Celebrating Tu b’Shvat at the end of winter is a reminder not only to be grateful for what the natural world gives us and enjoy the taste of its fruit, but also to think ahead to what will be and what won’t be. We think about our actions now, and how those actions will affect the future. We are reminded that how we treat ourselves and the world around us may have an impact far beyond ourselves and our current situation.
All around the world, and certainly in Israel, Tu b’Shvat is often treated as ‘environmental awareness day’, when we plant trees and learn about conservation. Thinking about the fires in Australia and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, how should we approach this holiday? How can we appreciate the new fruits when so many are being destroyed? Why bother planting more trees when they may get chopped down anyway?
In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, He showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you.” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:28)
Those trees were created for us to use for our benefit however we see fit. Who defines what ‘benefit’ means? Who are we, as individuals, to determine how we should be treating the commodity of nature? Maybe that’s exactly what nature is; a commodity for us to enjoy right now without worrying about the fruits being destroyed and the trees being burned right now – that’s in the past.
Of course, that can’t be our attitude! We all understand that damage and destruction is happening at this very moment, but it can take many years to see the impact of a change in our understanding. It is not so simple to learn something once during Tu b’Shvat and expect that our actions will suddenly change. What is important is to think about how our change in understanding is slowly becoming more obvious in our actions. Are we planting trees to reap their fruit in the next year? Are we recycling paper so that just our local forests will remain standing? Are we really making all these behavioral changes just for us? For some the answer is yes, but for many, that isn’t the case. We are changing our habits for our friends and family whom we know well, for our greater community of whom we may know little about, and for nature’s different ecosystems from which we often feel disconnected.
So what can we do this Tu b’Shvat with all of the knowledge of the problems around the world? Let’s appreciate that we are fortunate enough to have choices, and are able to make conscious decisions when we act. Let’s remember that our words and our actions impact people distant from us in time and place. And let’s keep in mind that, even if the world was created for the benefit of humankind, that benefit comes with a responsibility that goes way beyond the here and now.