The Jewish calendar is a lunar one, based on the cycles of the moon. This has always appealed to me, as I love to look at the night sky and watch the phases of the moon. I also find it to be a helpful and healthy reminder of our connection to nature, the seasons and the mysteries of the universe.
Right now, we are just about half way through the month of Shevat. On the 15th of Shevat, we will celebrate Rosh HaShanah L’Illanot, the New Year of the Trees. In Hebrew, “Tu” is a numeric representation of the number fifteen. Therefore, the name of this holiday is most often called TuB’Shevat.
As with most things within the Jewish tradition, there are many layers and several ways of approaching the holiday. At its beginning, back in the early centuries of the Common Era, it was established in order to mark a fixed date after which Jewish farmers would calculate how much of their bounty to tithe, to the poor, the widowed and the orphan as well as the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
But why now, in the midst of winter? Simply stated, although there may still be a chill in the air here, with colder days yet to come, we are, indeed, inching closer to Spring. We are now more than a month past the Winter Solstice and the days are getting longer. Have you noticed? Just yesterday, I went for a walk in the late afternoon and was pleasantly surprised by how much later I could stay outside before darkness descended on our fair city.
More importantly, right now, at this time of year, in the Land of Israel, the winter rains are ending and the almond trees, the first to bloom, are beginning to bud. The sap is beginning to flow and the time for planting has arrived.
In the 16th century, the mystics and Kabbalists in Sfat, both an ancient and modern city in Israel, began to celebrate this holiday by eating various fruits that come from trees. A seder, different than, but akin to the Passover seder that we observe in the month of Nissan (April/May on the Gregorian calendar) was established. Psalms are read, songs are sung, figs, dates, olives, carob and other fruits, especially those that are common to Israel, are eaten, and the wonders of nature are recognized and honored.
In modern times, TuB’Shevat has embraced a more environmental message. The seder is a call to action. It is a time of education and reflection, a time to look at our impact on the natural world around us and change the way we interact with our environment, in order to support and protect G-d’s creation. As Baruch Spinoza wisely said, “The power of nature is the power of G-d”.
One of my favorite teachings comes from Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, 1772-1810, who wrote, “Master of the Universe, may it be my custom to go outdoors each day, among the trees and grasses, among all living things, to be alone and enter into prayer. There may I express all that is in my heart, talking with the One to whom I belong…”. The prayer goes on, but word count prevents me from writing more here. If interested, look up Reb Nachman. He has much to offer.
Planting trees is a selfless act. They take years to grow and bear fruit. But we do it because those who came before us planted for us and we, in turn, plant for generations to come.
The following prayer, written by Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, among other noteworthy books, speaks to me, to TuB’Shevat and to these times we are living in:
Let the rain come and wash away the ancient grudges, the bitter hatreds held and nurtured over generations.
Let the rain wash away the memory of the hurt, the neglect.
Let the sun come out and fill the sky with rainbows.
Let the warmth of the sun heal us wherever we are broken.
Let it burn away the fog so that we can see each other clearly.
So that we can see beyond labels, beyond accents, gender or skin color.
Let the warmth and brightness of the sun melt our selfishness.
So that we can share the joys and feel the sorrows of our neighbors.
And let the light of the sun be so strong that we will see all peoples as our neighbors.
Let the earth, nourished by rain, bring forth flowers to surround us with beauty.
And let the mountains teach our hearts to reach upward to heaven. Amen.
TuB’Shevat is a celebration of renewal, rebirth and reawakening. In my estimation, it couldn’t have arrived at a better time!
Janet Tatz, M.Ed., is the retired Jewish educator at Intermountain children’s home and the lay leader of the Helena Jewish community.