Monday, February 09, 2009

Happy New Year to the Trees! A Tu B'Shvat Essay by Alison Schwartzbaum

This essay about Tu B'Shvat was written by my sister Alison. I think it is very inspiring and interesting. I hope you enjoy it!


I went kayaking today with the Temple Menorah Young Professionals Club. It was my first event with the group (hurray for finally taking strides to create a social life!), and I really enjoyed myself. The kayaking was beautiful and after we got back to shore we went on a nature walk and learned about different plants and bugs. Finally, there was a brown bag lunch and a discussion about today's holiday, Tu B'shvat with the Temple's new assistant Rabbi, the 30-year-old Rabbi Dan.

Dan shared a very interesting idea about life and Judaism with us, and I'm compelled to share it with you. As you may already know, Tu B'shvat is the Jewish new year for the trees. Practically, the date marks the time from which you start counting how old your fruit trees are. This is significant in Jewish law because in Israel you cannot eat from a fruit tree until its fifth year. Additionally, it is customary to eat Israeli fruits such as pomegranates, dates, almonds, figs, grapes, carob (i think, don't quote me on that one), among others. However, Dan did not focus on the specifics of Jewish law in regard to trees. Instead, he talked about the meaning behind the holiday and the perspective it can give us through which to see the world.

Jewish law as it pertains to trees is very specific and very telling of the type of attitude Jews should have toward the environment. The Torah explicitly forbids the destruction of fruit trees without purpose; a Jew may not cut down a fruit tree unless it is causing harm to other trees in the orchard or if it will be used for a necessary purpose. In fact, even in a time of war, a Jewish army may not cut down a tree in order to cut an enemy's food supply. Unless there is an enemy in the tree who poses an immediate danger, a tree may not be touched.

Why all this stress about trees? After all, in Bereshit, the first book in the Torah, Hashem tells Adam that the world was created for him to use. Therefore, shouldn't man be able to do as he wishes with the environment?

A simple answer that reconciles these two parts of the Torah is the idea that we should take only what we need and never exploit the environment for our own excesses.

This is a very interesting and important idea especially today when consumerism and wastefulness typify American society and normative thought in countries throughout the world. We run to buy the latest ipod or phone to replace last year's model without thinking about the environmental impact that our electronic waste will create. (Not to get too off topic, but I feel like I must say, I'm not knocking all materialism or all aspects of our consumer culture, only how unthoughtful we are about it, and I'm definitely guilty of this too.)

Still, there is an even deeper lesson that we can glean from all this Jewish environmental talk. It stems from the original question about Judaism and the environment: why the stress? What's the big deal? What's the connection?

The answer lies in our obligation (that's my editorializing, I can't say for sure that it's mandatory) to develop our sensitivity and compassion for the world and everything in it.

If you believe in God as a creator and define God as timeless, limitless, omniscient, etc. (which I do, at least today I do, but even if you don't, read on, this idea might still apply), then you probably believe that all of creation is actually an extension of God himself. After all, how can something that is limitless exist outside of something and not outside of it and a part of it at the same time? (a drop more editorializing to the Rabbi's dvar torah: perhaps this is where the idea that we were created in God's image stems from, and is why the Shema, "hear o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" is such an integral part of Judaism--in other words, the Lord is one means that we're a part of him...without doing anything, just by existing, we are Godly beings). If that's the case then the whole world, and all of creation is very deeply connected. (If you're not so into the God stuff, here's the part where you can tune back in and probably feel comfortable): In essence, the existence of everything that is and ever was is like a drawing on an etch a sketch; imagine a drawing of a horizontal line that turns into an ornate drawing before returning to its original shape as a line. On an etch a sketch, as on a piece of paper, you'd never have removed the pen, so even though it changed shape, the entire time it was still the same line only in a different form. This is how the world (and everything in it and everything that exists outside of it) is. We are all essentially the same, connected thing only in different forms; break us down small enough, and humans and trees and everything else is all made up of the same compounds (be they from the periodic table of elements or from the part of us that is an extension of God). We are everything around us.

Rav Kook, the chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Israel pre-statehood summed up this idea much more eloquently than I ever could:

"If you are amazed at how it is possible to speak, hear, smell, touch, see, understand, and feel - tell your soul that all living things collectively confer upon you the fullness of your experience. Not the least speck of existence is superfluous, everything is needed, and everything serves its purpose. 'You' are presented within everything that is beneath you, and your being is bound up with all that transcends you" (Orot Hakodesh, 361).

Everything coexists because of and for something or someone else. The sooner we realize our interconnectedness with the world around us, our environment, and the people that inhabit it, and the sooner we treat these seemingly external parts of the Universe as essential parts of ourselves, the sooner we can repair the damage we've caused the world.

As Albert Einstein once said:

"A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

This is the true (or at least one of the true), deeper meanings of the holiday of Tu B'shvat - to remind ourselves of the relationship between humans and the world around us. Hopefully, with the wisdom and courage to see every part of the world as part of ourselves, we can develop the sensitivity and compassion necessary to repair our damaged environment as well as our damaged relationships with our friends and family at home and our carbon-based brothers and sisters all around the world.

Chag Sameach to all and thank you again to Rabbi Dan for giving me the knowledge base and the inspiration to share this with you,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great essay. I'd like to see something on how much Obama has dropped the ball on the stimulus however. -s

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