January 20, 2019
My favorite holiday tends to shift given whichever one is closest, but I find myself prioritizing Tu B’Shvat year-round. I only learned about it and celebrated for the first time last year, during my year-long study to convert to Judaism, and I was struck by the beauty of having a whole holiday dedicated to trees. And then struck by that holiday being in January.
As contrary as it may seem for the New Year of the Trees to fall in winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s more fitting than we might think. Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow writes in his book, Seasons of Our Joy, that the deep winter is actually the perfect time to dedicate ourselves to the protection of the environment because it highlights how fragile nature really is. When the leaves fall in autumn and the snow begins to descend, we are all acting with trust that the springtime will bring about new life. Similar to Sukkot, Tu B’Shvat is a holiday centered around cultivating faith and patience in a process that may escape our everyday vision.
In Kabbalah, Eitz Chayim, the Tree of Life, is a mystical symbol representing the ways that G-d and the universe are in a constant state of mutual creation—that which is visible to the eye with the branches above, that which we can touch and experience by the trunk’s bark, and that which escapes our view in the roots. Tu B’Shvat is a time of connecting with those roots, nurturing them, and making sure they have ample room to grow.
I believe a holiday is only as “minor” as the mindset surrounding it. Tu B’Shvat is meant to focus in on renewing our commitment to nurture ourselves and this earth—and what a beautiful, radical idea that is, to take time to reflect upon and recenter around that commitment. In what ways have we been neglecting our growth? In what ways can we look to feed our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs during this time?
The personal spiritual tending done during Tu B’Shvat is important, but just as important is the truth that the environment is not only in danger during winter. When I read the United Nations’ climate change report released in October, I remember feeling like my throat was seizing up. My mom and I had our scheduled phone call maybe an hour later, and when she asked how I was, it was hard for me to form words through the panic.
Climate change is one of the most challenging things for the everyday person to wrap their head around. It’s not something that we can generally see the direct effects of. Personally, I find the magnitude of it to be so overwhelming that my brain often force-quits. Too big, too much, no thanks, can’t handle it.
How can we commit to protecting and celebrating the Earth, as we are charged with on Tu B’shvat, when the scale and complexity of the threat is so beyond comprehension? What does it mean to connect with, and celebrate, an earth that seems to be crumbling beneath us?
If the end is nigh (which it isn’t), does that mean our work has ended? To me, it means it’s time to get focused. Believing that all living beings are deeply interconnected involves reaching deep within myself to feel the pain in the universe, to follow the roots that Eitz Chayim stretches across all boundaries. It’s messy and uncomfortable and often consuming, but the past twelve months of earthquakes, floods, and wildfires have shone light, more than ever, on the idea that the commitment to our earth must be a constant, mindful one.
I’m not trying to suggest that any one of us can do this work alone or affect huge, long-term change, but that doesn’t mean that we are exempt from trying. As the Talmud tells us, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Volunteering with or giving tzedakah to environmentally-focused organizations, joining a community garden, cutting down on plastic waste (especially bottled water—a privilege so many of us take for granted), buying locally grown or fair trade foods—all of these are small steps toward caring for the world, but they’re critical. Beyond these actions, we can also “vote with our dollars”—spend our money with stores and brands that support our values with actions of their own. Making habits out of actions that reflect our values is a perfect way to keep our commitment in focus.
My personal vision of Tu B’Shvat combines meditation on the ways we can renew our commitment to ourselves, and action in ways that renew our commitment to the planet. What’s more, I truly believe we are meant to celebrate. Sit down for a seder with people who remind you of your place in the world, take yourself on a walk and truly look at what’s around you, enjoy a piece of fruit and a glass of grape juice, listen and laugh and plan and organize. Sustainable and resilient care for our planet and ourselves ultimately comes from love, not from fear.
However you choose to observe Tu B’Shvat, even if it’s just a friendly wave as it passes by, remember that we are tenants of this earth, not the owners. When we dishonor the earth, we dishonor the source of life that has allowed us to experience it. G-d gave us this world, but it’s our job to look after it—after all, it’s the only one we have.
Alec Reitz is Kolbo’s Book Buyer, Blog Coordinator, and resident crafting enthusiast. They spend most of their time investigating bouts of everyday magic and and studying Jewish mysticism. Their writing can be found on My Jewish Learning, and in Berkeley Fiction Review, The Grief Diaries, and Pithead Chapel.
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