Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Jewish or Not, Tu Bishvat Reminds Us to Speak for the Trees

While many of us are only a few weeks into our New Year’s resolutions, it is almost time to celebrate another New Year. But this time there will be no balls dropping or countdowns to midnight. Instead, the focus of this celebration is trees.

Tu Bishvat, which beings on February 3, is the Jewish New Year for Trees and is a time to reflect on Judaism’s environmentalist roots. But caring for the environment is not just a Jewish concern; it’s a concern of a majority of Americans. No matter the faith, we all want clean air and water, a healthy food system, and beautiful landscapes. This makes Tu Bishvat an easy holiday for interfaith couples and families to embrace.  

Roots of Jewish Environmentalism and Tu Bishvat

Judaism’s environmental roots date back to biblical times. God gave humans dominion over the earth in Genesis and throughout the Torah provided guidelines for caring for the environment, using the fields to feed the poor, and appreciating and protecting the land. The original purpose of Tu Bishvat was to calculate the age of trees so that people could follow the laws set out in the Torah (Lev. 19.23-25) regarding care and tithing.

But the modern focus of the holiday is not calculating the age of trees and crops, but rather on renewing the commitment to care for the earth. Sometimes called Jewish Earth Day or Jewish Arbor Day, the celebration draws our attention to the land, nature and Israel. It reminds us that we are the custodians of the world, the ones obligated to care for it.  

Celebrating the New Year for Trees

There are many ways for interfaith and Jewish families to mark Tu Bishvat. Traditionally, the holiday is celebrated with a Seder. Created by Jewish mystics, in the sixteenth century in northern Israel, the ritual meal celebrates God’s presence in nature. The meal includes four cups of wine and fruits that symbolize the seasons and various aspects of the earth. It features the Seven Species, which are the seven types of fruits and grains named in the Torah including wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. Carob is also included because carob trees take many years to bear fruit and remind us to care for the earth now so it’s around for future generations. Check out the Seder on My Jewish Learning

Other ways to celebrate Tu Bishvat include:  
Plant trees: Plant trees locally and in Israel in memory or honor of a loved one or friend. Jewish National Fund, a global environmental leader that has planted more than 250 million trees in Israel over 113 years, sponsors a Tu Bishvat tree campaign. Trees can be purchased through forms available at day schools, religious schools, and synagogues or online.  

Discuss the environment: Use the holiday to reinforce your environmental values and discuss ways to protect our planet. Talk about how people’s actions affect the Earth. Ask your children to name some consequences of human behavior such as pollution, litter, and global warming. Brainstorm big and small ideas to address these problems including how your family can live greener. Read or watch The Lorax and talk about the story’s message.

Reconnect with nature: Make Tu Bishvat an excuse to get outdoors. Bogged down with school, work, and other responsibilities, many of us don’t spend enough time outside enjoying our surroundings. When we stop mid-hike, mid-kayak or at the top of a ski slope to take in the sights, smells, and sounds, it reminds us to be thankful for the wonders of the natural world. Being in nature is not just good for our spirits, but also for our bodies and minds. It reduces stress and connects us to our global and local community.  

Move beyond trees: Think outside the ecological box. The environment is interconnected with our health and economy. Utilize your purchasing power to influence businesses to be more eco-friendly. Buy products and foods that are chemical-free, use BPA-free plastics and cans, and support companies that use sustainable farming or manufacturing practices.  

Clean it up: It would be easy to turn away and hope that someone else cleans up our planet, but that would be shirking our responsibility. Midrash, Kohelet Rabbah 7:13 says,

When God created Adam, God led him around the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Behold My works. See how wonderful and beautiful they are. All that I have created, for your sake did I create it. Now see to it that you do not spoil and destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you." 

Care for the world through your words and your actions. Take an extra bag when you walk the dog and use it to pick up litter. Do a garbage cleanup in your neighborhood or a nearby park; you’ll be surprised how much trash there is even in “nice” areas.   

Tu Bishvat reminds Jews to speak for the trees, but it also highlights how caring for the earth is a value shared across faiths and cultures. This makes it an ideal tradition for interfaith families to embrace. Why not use the holiday as a catalyst to discuss the obligation to care for the world, identify actions you can take to live greener and nurture the planet, and connect with Judaism?