Thoughts on this Tu B’Shvat

Thursday, January 28, 2021 | Tu B’Shvat 5781

Dear All,

One of the questions underpinning the entire Jewish environmental movement is the question: to what end? If we want to make a difference in the world, can’t we – shouldn’t we – just support, or the Sierra Club?

And my answer is that we should – and Hazon, over the years, has partnered with both organizations, and many others outside of the Jewish community.

But we’re half way through an 8-part series, learning with Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair about masechet ta’anit, and reading ta’anit closely to develop from it a sense of what a contemporary Jewish climate theology might look like.

And in this week’s class, I really did have a deep moment of clarity, which I want to share with you, on Tu B’Shvat.

Tu B’Shvat, of course, is “the new year for trees.” This year we’re one of the anchor partners for the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest, and we hope you’ll join us for one or more of the 160+ sessions that are happening from now through Sunday.

One can talk – and we have, and we will – about the history of Tu B’Shvat, how it arose, what it means, how we can observe it.

But the thing that I had a burst of clarity about, just yesterday, is that the deeper significance of Tu B’Shvat – and masechet ta’anit – and the second paragraph of the sh’ma – and the Jewish blessings of gratitude – and the blessings we say over foods – is not simply a linear reading of each: that this means that…

Rather, they are like walking in a forest, or considering a tree over a long period of time, or watching an orchid grow and flower, year after year, each year somewhat differently. In each case we are exercising different kinds of muscles. As we learn from the permaculture teachers, we are slowing down. Watching. Learning. Listening. Observing different rhythms.

In 2019 we ran a bookclub with Richard Powers’ The Overstory. Part of the extraordinary power of the book is that, almost uniquely for a contemporary work of fiction, it was able in subtle and profound ways to express this. After I read the book, I read an interview with Powers in which he said that he had wanted, originally, to write a book in which trees were actually the central characters, as personalities. He concluded that that was not possible, and this was his next best attempt at the task. But of course what is so powerful is that he at least partially succeeded.

Only after I read The Overstory did I read Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. Also an extraordinary accomplishment. Shorter than Overstory, and a very different work. He is making the point that the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and the Western novel in particular, is simply incapable of capturing the scale and timing and rhythms, the biological and supra-human necessities, of what it is that is happening in the world right now.

And all of that, I realize, is what Jewish tradition is about, certainly in relation to the natural world. All the things I referenced earlier on, and then some. Plus the notion that the Torah is “etz chayim,” the Tree of Life. Or the idea that, if the messiah is arriving, we should first finish planting our tree – and only then go out to greet the mashiach.

The rhythms of Jewish tradition are very slow. This is one thing that we share with the conservation movement, and with an ecological precautionary principle; Jewish tradition is, in this sense, deeply conservative. We move very slowly – at the pace of centuries, at the pace of generations, at the pace of the multi-generational discourse of the Talmud and “learning Torah.” Only the trees, amidst living things, move at this pace. When, years ago, I did a retreat with Rabbi Zelig Golden of Wilderness Torah on the California/Nevada border, we encountered small, gnarly, weatherbeaten trees – bristlecone pines. They are some of the very oldest living things on earth. One or two of the trees that I sat with may well have been growing when Hillel and Shammai were alive, when Jesus was alive. How extraordinary. How do we hold that? What does it mean? How do we hear that, feel that, engage with that?

I end with this. My first Tu B’Shvat seder, in 1986, was hosted by Bonna and Shmuel Haberman Browns. I’ve hosted or attended a seder every year since. Bonna died a little over five years ago, far too young (and this is a piece I wrote about her in the Forward, the day that she was buried). Then three years ago I was in South Africa to officiate a wedding, and attended an extraordinarily beautiful Tu B’Shvat seder in a park in Johannesburg. It included the longest silent meditation walk I had ever done, amidst these unfamiliar trees and shrubs. I was thinking about my father, who was very unwell, and whom I had been back to see the week before. Five minutes after we got back from the seder, my mother phoned – to say that my father had just died. (Since I shared the piece I wrote about Bonna, I will share also the hesped I gave for my father.)

For me, both my father and Bonna, and their deaths, are inextricably tied up for me with Tu B’Shvat. In different ways, and having had very different relationships with each of them, I remember them both, especially, on Tu B’shvat. They were so different from each other, in age and background, nationality, careers, in how they ate. But they each had an enormous impact on me; my father, obviously, but Bonna also.

They each, in fact, came from the same ground. The tradition that nurtured them – that has nurtured me, and so many of us – is ancient. Older even than the bristlecone pines. Still living, breathing, growing, branching out. Dying and being reborn. New seeds. New fruits.

So, on this Tu B’Shvat, in this year of vaccines and new beginnings, I want to bless you and me and all of us that, amidst social media, and Zoom, and WhatsApp and – yes – emails from me and from other organizations; that we slow down. Walk amidst trees and living things. Read Powers and Ghosh – and the talmud bavli. Say our prayers. Express gratitude. And soak, as slowly and as carefully as we can, into the different rhythms that may yet help to redeem us from ourselves, in the way our tradition has always strived to do.

Tu B’Shvat sameach, shabbat shalom,