By Nigel Savage
Tuesday, January 28, 2020 | 2nd Shvat 5780
What does Tu B’Shvat mean in 2020? It’s a deeper question than it may at first seem.
It’s the “new year for trees.” And we indeed associate it with trees and fruits and perhaps a Tu B’Shvat seder. Ok – but beyond that?
Answering this involves a certain kind of leap of faith. (It is not for me a theological leap. If I had to make a theological leap I’d barely get across a little puddle…)
It’s a leap of faith in relation to the deep wisdom of an ancient tradition, in our unsettled post-postmodern age. We have to assume – and trust – and somehow really believe – that Jewish tradition isn’t just for kids. It’s not about the formal structures of Jewish life or responding to antisemitism or leaning in to Israel or any of those things. Such things may come from faith in the wisdom of Jewish tradition, but they can’t drive it. When they do our soil becomes depleted and we use the equivalent of pesticides or other interventions as a quick fix; and, as we are all learning, quick fixes like that don’t actually work.
But if we do trust that the tradition is wise, then we have to understand that each holiday – and for now, I’ll just talk about Tu B’Shvat, but this really is true of every holiday and every Shabbat and every node of Jewish tradition – each holiday comes to teach us something that, ideally, we should be thinking about the whole year round.
So for Tu B’Shvat we must start by thinking afresh about trees – in Jewish life, and in the world today.
The sheer centrality of trees to Jewish tradition may be so obvious to someone who is Jewishly involved that we have lost sight of its significance.
Why is the Torah referred to as “a tree of life”?
Why do we proscribe the cutting down of fruit trees even in a time of war?
And what exactly does it mean that the Torah in teaching this uses the enigmatic phrase, “ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” – which could mean that a tree cannot be cut down because humans depend upon it (an anthropocentric view); or it could mean that trees cannot be cut down because, unlike a human being, a tree cannot run away (a biocentric view).
And what should we learn, what should we be thinking, when we see so many images of the Torah as a tree of life in Jewish institutions – on Torah scrolls, covering the holy Ark, in logos, on the sides of buildings?
Certainly the consequences of this tradition has real world consequences. It is a straight line from Tu B’Shvat and “etz chayim” to the JNF, and tree certificates – and the remarkable fact that the State of Israel is the only country to end the 20th century with more trees than with which it began.
All of this has been a central part of Jewish life before this distinct moment in human time.
But now it’s 2020. Australia is burning. It will soon be the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
We have new priorities and new challenges – and thus new questions for Jewish tradition and for Jewish life.
This leads me (circuitously; bear with me) to the British general election. It was the first election in my lifetime in which the climate crisis was a real issue. Unlike in this country, there is not much argument between the political parties that the climate crisis is real, or that it is caused by our behaviors, or that it is now a critical priority that every level of society address this crisis, in multiple ways. All that was a consensus in the British general election.
No, what was striking was how the parties then competed against this consensus backdrop.
And it turned out that trees were a high profile part of their competition.
The Tories – the English version of the Republican party – pledged to plant an extra 30 million trees a year, in the UK. (To get a sense of this: England alone is just a tad bigger than New York state; the UK in toto is a bit smaller than Oregon.)
So the Tories pledged to plant an extra 30 million trees a year;
Then the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists each pledged an extra 60 million a year; then the Greens pledged an additional 700 million trees by 2030;
And then the Labour party pledged an extra 2 billion trees by 2040.
Is this not remarkable?
Think about it as you celebrate Tu B’Shvat [which falls at the end of next week – the evening of Sunday 9th Feb., and Monday 10th Feb.]
So. This is part of what it means to be heir to this tradition. And this is why we’ve developed the Hazon Seal of Sustainability, which incorporates not only trees and Tu B’Shvat but, more broadly, creates a pathway for institutions to focus on education and action and advocacy; to address issues as individuals, as institutions, and in the wider community.
If you want to honor Tu B’Shvat: learn more about these issues; act – in some way – to be a further force for good; and speak up, to help drive wider change.
At the level of education – learn more about trees. Learn more about the climate crisis. Learn more about your own impact in the world, and the impacts of the institutions that you are part of.
Action – don’t just sit there – plant a tree. A whole cluster of Jewish organizations and leaders have come together to launch JTree, an initiative to encourage Jews, as Jews, to plant trees around the world. You can plant a tree through JNF, in Israel. You can plant a tree at Pearlstone. And, depending on where you live, you can start to plant trees on your own land or at an institution that you’re part of. This is all part of what has become the Trillion Tree Initiative, originally conceived by Wangari Maathai. We’re not required to complete the task – but neither can we desist from it.
Advocacy – find a local group at 350.org. Check out JCAN, or get involved in your local JCRC – organized Jewish communities across the country need to be saying to candidates, in an election year, that this is a key priority.
If you want to download our updated Tu B’Shvat haggadah, you can do so here. It’s free and – a reminder – you don’t have to be an institution to celebrate Tu B’Shvat!! Do it as a family. Do it with friends. Next Sunday night – February 9th – should be the kickstarter for your own commitment to change, this decade.
Finally: my father, Gerry Savage, z”l, died on Tu B’Shvat two years ago. In his honor, the Hazon board committed to planting a food forest on the newly acquired land adjacent to our Adamah educational farm at Isabella Freedman. If you’d like to support Hazon in all of the work that we do, or to give a gift towards the renewal of that land and the planting of chestnuts and hazelnut trees there, please do so by giving a gift here. To drawdown carbon into the soil (check out silvopasture and regenerative agriculture) we are reforesting acres of old cow pasture.
Wishing you Tu B’Shvat sameach – a happy and healthy new year for trees, and for all of us.
PS – a long educational PS, if you made it this far, and you’re interested.
I commend – again – the utterly extraordinary book by Richard Powers, The Overstory, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2019.
Hazon did an online book club for The Overstory, several months before it won the Pulitzer. Just recently I saw that the Pulitzer website contains an interview with Powers. The interviewer asks him “What question would you hope a group of people reading the novel would address?” Here is his answer in full:
I would hope that readers might ask some of the same things that the characters in The Overstory are forced to ask themselves.
What chance does activism have against the relentless appetite of capitalism? Can violence be excused in the defense of the last few patches of land that haven’t yet been lost to the violence of “development?”
What difference do individual actions make?
What is the best thing we can do for the world of the future?
Is meaning really a private, synthetic, and subjective thing, or might it be found out there, in living processes that predate human beings by billions of years?
What does it mean, to learn that trees turn out to be social beings, networked together underground, cooperating and coordinating their behaviors with one another? How would it feel to think like a mountain or like a forest?
Can we free ourselves from the grip of groupthink, the parochial narrowness of human time, and the colonizing consensus of “the real world?”
Why are there so few non-humans in our literary stories?
What is it in us human beings that has led us to believe that we are separate from and sovereign over all the rest of creation? How can we become indigenous again? What would it take, to get us to come back home?