One of my favorite things about winter is to sit indoors before a warm fire in my stove. I must admit that I am feeling a bit disappointed in the mild winter we have had so far.
We had one snowfall in mid-January, and right now, as I write this article, the temperature has been in the 50s and 60s the last few days, in February! We know that global warming/climate change is happening, and this mild winter may be due to that. I am afraid for our children and our grandchildren, who will deal with a serious climate crisis, long after we are gone.
I always write, at this time of year, about Tu Bishv’at, the Jewish “New Year of Trees.” This year, the holiday occurred on this past Monday, Feb. 10. The holiday of Tu Bishv’at is based on the seasonal cycles of the land of Israel. In the Hebrew month of Shevat, in January or February, in Israel it is last of the rainy season, and spring is starting to awaken.
The first tree to blossom is the almond tree, and it blooms around Tu Bishv’at. Thus, Tu Bishv’at 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.
At a time when our earth is facing human-caused climate change, perhaps Tu Bishv’at has some lessons we should think about. The holiday is all about trees. And we know that some of our climate crisis is caused by human deforestation of large swaths of the earth.
Look at what is happening in Brazil today, as more and more of the Amazon rainforest, the “lungs of the earth,” is being cut down and burned by short-sighted human beings. Already much of the North American continent has been deforested over the last 400 years, since European settlers colonized the land.
We humans have been, and are still, very short-sighted. We have cut down so many of the forests to create huge industrial agricultural areas, to build buildings and to create cities, and we may be endangering ourselves and all we have built.
Yet, scientists tell us clearly that trees are one of the best “carbon sinks” that we have to pull excess carbon dioxide, major cause of the excess warming, out of the atmosphere. We should be planting more and more trees, instead of cutting them down.
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Tu Bishv’at emphasizes an important Jewish teaching—that it is a special “mitzvah” (good deed) to plant 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 has long been 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.
It is important to take steps to reverse our massive deforestation of the planet. Even while we all take steps to reduce our waste, to recycle, to use fewer fossil fuels, to live more sustainably on our only home planet, we need to plant more trees.
I look out my kitchen window every day at a huge pine tree that my late husband and I planted about 34 years ago. When we planted it, it was a 6- to 8-inch seedling that we 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 now have a new memory of that tree from just over a year ago, when I saw a large black bear walk past that tree. Seeing that tree every day makes me feel like I did something important when I planted it. It will probably be here long after I am gone, which makes me feel wonderful.
I am happy that this tree is helping the planet breathe. We all need to plant trees. Some of us can plant on land that we own. Some of us can plant trees by participating in community programs to plant trees to create riparian buffers along streams. Some of us can donate money to organizations that plant trees where they are needed.
By planting trees we are giving a gift to future generations, so that they can enjoy the changing of the seasons and all the gifts of trees. We should appreciate the many blessings we receive from trees—fruit, shade, beauty and breathable air. Planting trees, even just one tree, is a way that we can build a more sustainable future for the generations to come. Planting trees is an act of hope for the future.
Go plant a tree!
Emily Burt-Hedrick is the President of the Congregation Beth Tikvah.