Torah from Trees: On Tu B’Shvat and Guarding God’s Creation
Rabbi Isaac Luria and the Medieval Tu B’Shvat Seder
The Peri Eitz Hadar is divided into four sections, each of which describes how the specific foods of the ritual are meant to be eaten, and includes a number of biblical, rabbinic, and, in particular, kabbalistic and zoharic texts about the holiday. While the ritual is similar ot the way in which many of us observe a Tu B’Shvat Seder today, in terms of the foods eaten and the rituals recited, in many ways, the purpose of the ritual is not merely to eat certain certain foods and recite certain blessings, but to think about how what we eat and receive from trees bounds us up in God’s cosmic order. According to Miles Krassen,
“Implicit here is a notion of sacred cosmology, which is not limited to material existence. The kabbalists’ faith involves a hierarchy of worlds that are ontologically higher than the material world. These worlds are populated by angels and spiritual forces that span the ontological regions that separate humanity and the material world from God. Moreover, the forces in these worlds serve as conduits and sources for the divine energy that becomes manifest in nature and in Creation in general.” (3)
Beginning in the kabbalistic period, Tu B’Shvat became a symbol for how the complexity and beauty of nature can serve as a reminder of the cosmic plan God set forth for humanity. When the modern period, Tu B’Shvat’s cosmic significance was no longer about God’s cosmic plan, but about our plan for protecting the holy universe which we given to serve as its stewards.
Ellen Bernstein and the Modern Tu B’Shvat Seder
While the Tu B’Shvat Seder’s growth in the last several decades has been the result of a variety of factors, one of the most important figures in this growth has been Ellen Bernstein, who founded Shomrei Adamah as a national Jewish environmental organization in 1988 that became known for creating a massive community-wide Tu B’Shvat sedarim that attracted over 30,000 people.
On of the core aspects of Bernstein’s work was explaining how the observance of Tu B’Shvat intends to increase our ecological consciousness. Regarding the Tu B’Shvat Seder, Bernstein writes that just as the Passover Seder intends to make the process of slavery to freedom concrete,
“The intention of the Tu B’Shvat seder is also to make an idea concrete. The idea is this: God is the source of all life, so every tiny piece of creation – a raisin, a walnut, a peach – is infinitely valuable. This them speaks to human responsibility; since Nature is a grand web in which everything is connected to everything else, every small action that humans do reverberates all over the universe.” (4)
Bernstein sees Tu B’Shvat as reminding us about the significance of every aspect of God’s creation, from the tallest mountains to the smallest insect. As we mark this day on the Jewish calendar, we are reminded of the glory of God’s creation, and our responsibility to serve as stewards to God’s glorious works.
Furthermore, Bernstein sees Tu B’Shvat as fitting in the larger context of Judaism’s approach to environmental sustainability. She writes that, “While God is the source of our lives spiritually, nature is the source of our lives in the material plane, and being mindful of the godliness in everything is the first step of an ecological lifestyle.” (5) The more we become aware of the significance of God’s creation, the more our actions reflect an environmental consciousness most of us (this author included) sorely lack. Bernstein asserts that,“like ecology, whose concern first and foremost is the ecos, the house, Judaism is interested in preserving the home–our earthly home,” (6) and using Tu B’Shvat in this context allows provides us with a ritual reminder of that obligation every year.
Torah from Trees: Tu B’Shvat and Environmental Consciousness
In many ways, the medieval and modern interpretations of Tu B’Shvat allow us to think about the New Year for the trees in a new light, for now Tu B’Shvat is both about recognizing God’s cosmic plan set forth at creation, and our responsibility to serve as stewards for God’s creation. In this respect, we are asked to think about what is the “Torah” we can receive from the trees and all of the environment.
First, we can learn the lesson that the natural world contains divine sparks within it. Regarding this, the Zohar recounts the following story:
“Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Abba, and Rabbi Yossi were sitting under the trees in the valley of the Sea of Ginnosar (Kinneret). Rabbi Shimon said: “How beautiful (na’eh) is the shade with which these trees provide us; Let us crown them with words of Torah!”” (7)
The Zohar tells of a legend where some of the most rabbinic sages see God’s wisdom not only in study and ritual, but through the world around them. This sentiment is echoed in a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, who taught that, “It is a great principle that there are holy sparks in all there is in the world. Nothing is void of sparks, even trees and stones.” (8) By extension, if every component of the natural world contains God within it, that reality necessitates a type of care for the environment.
Second, just as the kabbalistic imagery of the Tu B’Shvat Seder reminds us that we exist in a larger cosmic framework, developing an environmental consciousness will also remind us that we our actions are not performed in isolation. Regarding this, the following Midrash is taught:
“Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai said: Three things are balanced together, and they are land, humanity, and rain.” Rabbi Levi b. Haytah said, “And all three of these are only three letters [in Hebrew], to teach you that if there is no land there’s no rain, and if there’s no rain there is no land, and without either of them, there’s no humanity.” (9)
We all exist in a cosmic balance, one that contains every living being, every natural creation, and every decision we make in terms of how to shape God’s creation. When we are faced with the question of how we must respond to the present environmental crisis facing our world, we must begin by remembering that no action towards this world is done in isolation, but affects the ecology of every living being.
Additionally, if the fundamental purpose of our existence is to guard and protect God’s creation, any type of destruction works against the mission that God laid out for humanity. The most famous manifestation of this concept is the mitzvah of lo tashhit, that one should refrain from wanton destruction. The mitzvah originates in Deuteronomy and states that,
“When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by forcing an ax against them; for you may eat of them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man that it should besieged by you?” (10)
Ultimately, while the Torah’s original mitzvah is limited to a particular type of destruction of a particular type of tree, our rabbinic commentators ultimately see this mitzvah as reflecting an all-encompassing principle for how to treat God’s creation. TheKitzur Shulkhan Arukh states that, “Like a person needs to take care of his body so as to not lose it or spoil it or damage it…all who spoil anything that is fit for the enjoyment of humanity transgresses lo tashhit.” (11) Since we were placed on this earth to plant and to protect, Tu B’Shvat ought to be a reminder of the sin that is committed when we destroy that which was given to us.
Finally, the Torah we learn from trees reminds us that we need to consider our relationship to the environment, and think about how our actions that caused so much destruction are anathema to God’s vision for humanity. In a text cited in The Living Talmud, the medieval scholar Rabbi Jonah ibn Janach describes God’s vision in the following way:
“A man is held responsible for everything he receives in this world, and his children are responsible too…The fact is that nothing belongs to him, everything is the Lord’s, and whatever he received he received only on credit and the Lord will exact payment for it.”
“This may be compared to a person who entered a city and found no one there. He walked into the house and there found a table set with all kinds of food and drink. So he began to eat and drink thinking, “I deserve all of this, this is all mine, I shall with it what I please.” He didn’t even notice that the owners were watching him from the side! He will yet have to pay for everything he ate and drank, for he is in a spot from which he will not be able to escape.” (12)
We may have the ability to use and abuse God’s creation, but we have no right to do it, and God is watching us when we treat creation with disrespect. In a modern era in which environmental consciousness is too slowly becoming a priority for people around the world, Tu B’Shvat must represent not only a holiday of celebration, but a memorial of responsibility, where we remember that we learn trees from Torah, and now have the responsibility of treating our natural world with honor and respect.
(1) BT Rosh HaShanah 1a.