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Tu Bshavat – The “Green” Holiday

by | Jan 28, 2010

This Shabat is a doubly memorable one. Aside from the holiness of the Shabat day itself the date also is Tu Bshvat, the fifteenth day of Shvat, and the Shabat is called Shabat Shira – the Shabat of song. In the Torah reading we hear the song of Moshe and Israel at the Red Sea after Pharaoh’s destruction. The Haftorah is the lyrical song of the prophetess Deborah in celebration of the defeat of the Canaanite tyrant king and general.

Tu Bshvat is mentioned in the Mishna as being the Rosh Hashana – the new year for fruits and nature. As in all aspects of Judaism and Jewish life there are halachic consequences to this day but that is not the subject of this article.

Tu Bshvat reminds us of our connection to our land and its soil and its produce. It also points out the deep connection that the Torah teaches us exists between the natural world, its ecology and preservation and the Jewish people particularly and humankind generally. We were placed by God on this world to work it and guard it, to use its resources for our benefit but at the same time to safeguard it from ruthless exploitation and man made destructive forces.

One of the prohibitions of the Torah is not to destroy trees, food, produce and the planet generally, needlessly and heedlessly. The fruits of the Land of Israel have a holiness attached to them. When we partake of them on Tu Bshvat we reaffirm our commitment to the preservation of that holiness and our continuing obligations to create a blessed planet for those who will come after us.

As civilization progressed and technology opened new vistas for the exploitation of our planet’s natural resources, the ecological health of the planet seemingly declined. From the disappearing rain forest to the threat of global warming and melting icecaps, our planet has itself become an endangered species. So-called “Green” political parties have therefore arisen all over the Western world in an attempt to restore the correct equilibrium to nature’s benefit.

But as is also usual in most cases, political action, legislation and community activism alone are not enough to accomplish the goal set by that particular political party. It requires the winning of human hearts and minds to the cause that alone can reverse what appear to be impending difficulties and potential natural disasters. It is a matter of education and commitment, tenacity and sophistication that is required to win this long range struggle.

And Judaism and Jewish values have an important role to play in this situation. Jews are the experts in long term education, commitment, tenacity and sophistication. It is the secret of our survival over these many long millennia. Viewing Tu Bshvat as part of this educational project gives the enterprise a holy tone and an historical backdrop.

It will help guarantee that later generations will also be able to eat new delicious fruits grown from the carefully nurtured soil of the Land of Israel. “Green” is not and should not be a secular enterprise solely. Torah ideas and Jewish values have much to say about it as well.

In the long exile of the Jewish people from their homeland, Tu Bshvat was always a warm reminder of what once was and what would yet be once more. Jews ate dried and hard carob fruit and thought about Jerusalem and a better world for all.

Unable to own land they nevertheless appreciated the sanctity and blessing of the earth and its bounty. They were careful not to destroy plant life, not to wantonly uproot trees, not to waste the value of nature’s gifts to humans. And these attitudes were codified into Jewish law and enshrined in Jewish practice.

It is related that a great rabbi was once walking with Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, and in the heat of a complicated Talmudic discussion this rabbi absentmindedly and inadvertently picked a leaf off of a nearby branch of a tree. Rav Kook turned to him and said sadly: “Did it really disturb you that this leaf would be able to live months longer?”

Reverence for life, all forms of life on our wondrous earth is a keystone of Jewish attitude and thought. So, on Tu Bshvat we should appreciate the deep values that lie behind the delicious fruit that we eat. It is our “Green” holiday – our reminder that we are the custodian and responsible guardian of God’s gifts of nature that have been granted to us.