2018-01-31 / Religion Column

Tu B’Shevat reminds us of our responsibility to the natural world

Adath Emanu- El

Scientists believe they have discovered the single most depressing day on the calendar, at least for those of us living in the Northeast. By weighing such factors as weather and days since the holiday season, they have determined that January is the most painstaking month on our calendar and, depending on the year, the third or fourth Monday in January is the most depressing day in our year.

I see this study as frustrating, even as I understand it. The days are short. The thrill of Chanukah and a new year have subsided. Winter is very much here. There is no finish line in sight for newly begun marking periods and semesters.

And yet…January offers us so much and even warms the heart. It’s at this time of year that we make our way through some of the most fascinating sections of our Torah, mark the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and begin to prepare ourselves for such upcoming holidays as Purim and Passover. Put otherwise, there’s lots to love and relish even when temperatures barely climb above freezing.

As we begin the Book of Exodus, we meet Moses, who will do exactly what we need to do at this time of year: Move from a place of haplessness and helplessness to a place of new possibility. He will overcome his speech impediment, his deep-rooted anxiety, and a tyrannical ruler in the name of ushering the Jewish people to freedom.

The Hebrew month of Shevat is likewise an antidote to these challenging winter months. It is during Shevat, precisely on the 15th of Shevat, that we mark Tu B’Shevat, our tradition’s longstanding celebration of the natural world. Amid frigid days and pervading darkness, Tu B’Shevat has us turn our attention to the prospect of spring and, with that, the reminder that buds will blossom, fruit will ripen, and new life will sprout once more. Tu B’Shevat is so much about hope therefore. It reminds us that we Jews are to see things as they can be, not only as they are.

Dating back to the rabbinic era, Tu B’Shevat also has Jews around the world turn their attention to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Mystics of the 16th century initiated a Tu B’Shevat seder, which has since become popular across all Jewish movements. When we gather at a Tu B’Shevat seder table, we transport ourselves to the lush fields of northern Israel, the sprawling rows of date palms, and the scent of figs that cannot be ignored. Deuteronomy 8:8 teaches of seven specific species of food that we have integrated into the Tu B’Shevat ritual. The holiday thus becomes another way for us to grow closer to our beloved Israel and to do so not vis-a-vis political commentary or the ever-changing status of Israel’s relationship with her neighbors, but regarding something else: The innate preciousness of the Land of Israel itself, its ecological diversity, its beauty and its grandeur.

Finally, Tu B’Shevat urges a greater commitment to protecting the natural resources disappearing too quickly at the hands of we human beings. We are taught that Adam and Eve were created last precisely so that they could care for those living things created before they were. Deuteronomy urges us to do all that we can to safeguard the well being of trees and vegetation, even in times of war and hardship. Have we lived up to such high ideals? If we are not literally planting trees this Tu B’Shevat, then how are we reducing our carbon footprint? If we are God’s partners in ensuring a world of sustenance for us and our children, then how are we living up to that promise?

May you find great meaning during this special time of year. Here’s to health, happiness, and blessing. 

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