Tu Bishevat: An Urgent Wake-up Call from Our Planet

Today is Tu Bishevat, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat. It’s known as the “New Year of the Trees.”

Why do trees need a new year?

In ancient times, this was an accounting cutoff – the borderline between “last year’s produce” and “this year’s produce” for purposes of tithing to the Temple. We needed it in those days, since most of us were farmers, tied to the land.

In the Middle Ages, as Jews moved away from their ancestral homeland and away from working the soil, Tu Bishevat was transformed into a mystical holiday. An exploration of the mystical concepts of “Yetzirah” and “Assiyah” – God’s acts of creation and action – that are symbolized by the seasons and cycles of the year and of our lives.

Today, Tu Bishevat is being transformed again – and not a moment too soon – into an urgent reminder of the Jewish ecological and environmental ethic: that we need our planet, and we have a responsibility toward it.

Judaism teaches that we human beings were put on earth “l’shomrah ul’ovdah” – to safeguard the land and work the soil. We have, so far, done a lousy job.

Where our ancestors worked the soil, we pollute it. Where ancient people prayed for rain, we pump carbon and chemicals into the atmosphere and disrupt the water cycles. Where our tradition teaches us to respect animals through the kosher laws, we farm our fellow living things in the cruellest of conditions and destroy species at a dizzying rate.

Our agriculturalist ancestors saw Tu Bishevat as the ongoing record of a deep and respectful relationship with the earth. We need it as a reminder – of all the damage we are doing and of the urgent need to change our ways.

In the midst of a raging pandemic that has at least some of its roots in overpopulation and abuse of the environment, we need Tu Bishevat more than ever.

In a world where signs of the planet’s sickness are all around us – the smoggy skies, the plastic-filled oceans, the rising seas and temperatures – we need Tu Bishevat more than ever.

This year may the “New Year of the Trees” be a wake-up call and a call to action – urging us to change our ways. To lessen our carbon output; to replace our rampant consumption with a commitment to reduce and reuse; to reignite a love and respect for the planet from which we are born.

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