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Tu B’shevat’s Four Questions: Seder Celebrates Link with Earth

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On the full moon or 15th of the month of Shevat we celebrate the new year of the trees. The 15th in Hebrew letters is “tu” and so we call the day Tu B’Shevat. While Tu B’Shevat has always been considered a minor festival, it has gained new significance in the last decade as an environmental celebration of the natural world. With the right questions, it can lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves and our relationship with the rest of creation.

Since the beginning of the modern Zionist settlements in Israel, Tu B’Shevat has been Jewish Arbor Day. It symbolized the return to and revival of the land. In the Diaspora, the Jewish National Fund used Tu B’Shevat to raise money for the planting of trees in Israel. Many of us can remember buying a tree in Hebrew school. For each dime we bought a leaf in a cardboard tree. For those of us outside of Israel, Tu B’Shevat gave us a connection to the real land of Israel when previously it had been primarily symbolic.

The new year of the trees was established by the school of Hillel as the time of the beginning of the separation of the fruit tithes and the prohibition of orlah, the use of fruit of trees during the first three years after planting (Leviticus 19:23-5). Trees which blossomed after this date were considered to belong to the next year. The 15th was chosen because most of the annual rain of Eretz Yisrael falls before the 15th of Shevat and the trees may blossom before that time.

In the last 10 years there has been a different focus given to Tu B’Shevat. A Kabbalistic seder has been revived and reinterpreted in a modern environmental context. The Tu B’Shevat seder consisted of a series of blessings over various fruits and combinations of white and red wine which symbolized the seasons and God’s presence in the natural world. Given the growing importance of environmental spirituality and social action among Jews, it is only natural that the Tu B’Shevat seder should reappear.

Every seder should tell a story and every seder story is a response to four questions. Here are four possible questions that could be asked at a Tu B’Shevat seder: What do I know about the place where I live? Where do things come from? How do I connect to the earth? What is my purpose as a human being? These are questions asked by Mitchell Thomashow, director of the doctoral program in Environmental Studies at Antioch New England Graduate School, in his book “Ecological Identity.”

The questions that “should be at the heart of environmental education” can also be adapted to be at the heart of our environmental spirituality and be expressed in a Tu B’Shevat seder. Ask the questions and consider some possible answers.

What do I know about the place where I live? Trees are particular about the place in which they live. A tree can tell us a lot about the history of its place and how humans have acted upon it. In the tree we can see the effect of human settlement and industry as well as natural events like storms or fires. How much do we really know about the places we live? Try as we might to make every suburb the same ersatz Arcadia, each physical locale in which our communities are built, has a geological, biological and cultural story. This question should make us learn and tell those stories. Then we can become rooted not only in the Land of Israel but also in the land on which we actually live, work and worship.

Where do things come from? Everything we eat, everything we wear or use has its roots in the natural world. Who made them? Where did the materials come from? How were they processed? What is the environmental cost of our expecting to buy any product from anywhere in the world delivered to our front door? What is the true cost of our being able to eat fresh vegetables all year round? This question leads to a series of questions that should make us better appreciate our abundance and wealth.

How do I connect to the earth? The first human was called adam: earthling. We can never leave that original name. All that we are, all that we are made of, all that we live on, comes from the earth. We may try to separate ourselves from the rhythms of the earth. We may heat and air condition our houses and cars, but we cannot live outside the earth. We may shape the earth but we can never completely control it. We belong to the earth; the earth does not belong to us.

What is my purpose as a human being? One might also ask what is the purpose of a tree? A tree does not live to be a resource. It has a worth and a meaning in creation beyond our needs. And so we have a purpose and a worth beyond our roles as producers and consumers. Is there some greater good for humanity? This question calls upon us to recognize our place in the order of creation. Like the trees, we are voices in that great choir of life that praises with its every breath the Creator of the Universe.

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