Next week, on Jan. 28, it will again be Tu Bi-Shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees.
In the land of Israel, the first tree to blossom is the almond tree, and it blooms around Tu Bi-Shevat. Thus, Tu Bi-Shevat is a time of celebrating the promise of spring when the trees will again blossom and leaf.
This holiday is the beginning of the annual cycle for trees—their New Year. We may be months away from spring, but the flowering of the almond at Tu Bi-Shevat gives us hope for future regrowth.
How is Tu Bi-Shevat celebrated? It is customary to eat fruits that grow in Israel, such as figs, dates, carob, raisins and almonds. Many Jewish families and Jewish schools hold a Tu Bi-Shevat Seder, a sort of ritual meal, in which they celebrate the fruits that grow on trees and the greatness of God who makes trees.
Why trees? Judaism has always had a special love for trees. The Torah requires that when the ancient Israelites besieged a city, they were forbidden to cut down fruit trees. In our weekly Sabbath prayers, we sing about how the Torah is the “Etz Hayyim,” the Tree of Life. It is a special “mitzvah” (good deed) to plant trees, and it is a Jewish custom to plant trees to celebrate weddings, births and other joyous occasions, and to plant trees in memory of our departed loved ones.
In fact, tree planting is so important that Rabbi Yohanon Ben Zakkai said that if you are planting a tree when the Messiah comes, you must first finish planting the tree before you go greet the Messiah. Many Jews observe Tu Bi-Shevat today by giving money to plant trees to help re-forest the earth or by planting trees themselves.
This year, I was reminded of the story of Choni the Circle Maker, a tale that comes from the Talmud. During times of drought in Israel, Choni drew a circle on the ground, stepped inside the circle, and then recited special prayers asking for rain. He also argued with God about the need for the rain. The Talmud says that his actions would make the rains come.
Another Choni story involves the planting of trees. One day, as he walked down the road, Choni saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked the man how long it would be before the carob tree would bear fruit. The man said it would take 70 years. Choni asked the man if he thought he himself would get to eat from that tree in 70 years. The man replied that it was unlikely, but his father and his grandfather had planted trees that he now harvests, and he wanted to plant trees for his children and grandchildren to harvest, even if he is no longer around.
What Choni learned about the carob tree is an important lesson for us. We have to plant the seeds and the trees for good things to grow in the future. We may not be here to see the results, but we still need to do our part to make sure that there are trees and a healthy future for our descendants to enjoy.
I often look out my window at a huge pine tree that I planted, now 34 years ago. When I planted it, It was a 6- to 8-inch seedling that I got from the local forestry service. It always amazes me that it survived and it grew so big and beautiful. I like to watch the birds sit in the branches and swoop over to the bird feeder by the window. I feel I did something important when I planted it. The tree will probably be here long after I am gone, which makes me feel wonderful.
This year, with the pandemic, many of us have been unable to do our usual activities. I started hiking in the woods last spring, after my usual exercise activities were no longer available. Hiking in the woods, in one of the many wonderful Pennsylvania State Parks in our area, has become a favorite past-time that I intend to keep doing even after we no longer have to “socially-distance” ourselves. Just walking in the woods, with all those trees everywhere, can be good for one’s mental health, as well as good physical exercise. Being among trees, “forest bathing,” can help restore our souls in times of stress.
As you know, the Earth is warming and climate is changing, due to human activity. Many trees are being lost in places like the Amazon (the “lungs of the earth”), and that loss (much of it human-caused) is hastening climate change. Many trees are being lost due to wildfires around the world. We all need to do our part to keep it from getting worse, and to help the Earth survive. We need more trees!
We can plant trees throughout the year, and we should! By planting trees, we are giving a gift to future generations, so that they can enjoy the changing of the seasons, and can appreciate the many blessings we receive from trees: fruit, shade, beauty, clean air and less stress.
Go plant a tree!
Emily Burt-Hedrick is the president of the Congregation Beth Tikvah.