By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
Excerpted from The London Times, 8 February 2020
From the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden to the dancing saplings of the Psalmist, the Bible shows a loving respect for trees. Living close to the land, the rabbis of the early centuries similarly appreciated the vital interconnectedness of creation: all the earth was ‘full of God’s glory.’ They understood both the ecological and the spiritual significance of trees:
The spirit that lives in the trees used to conversed with humankind, for all nature was created for mutual companionship with people.
We know now that trees do communicate, protecting and healing each other, interacting with microbial life through their roots. I believe they speak to us too, though probably not with conscious intention. I love to listen, especially at night, when the city falls quiet. I can’t explain what trees say. Their vocabulary is untranslatable, rich in bark and boughs, catkins and leaves. Their syntax flows in seasons, with the wind, frost and rain. They silence the discord in my head; they console the heart.
The love between people and trees begins in childhood, with climbing branches, kicking the autumn leaves and daring the allure of the forest. Later, trees are mystery and beauty, like Keats’s ‘beechen greens and shadows numberless’ where the hidden bird sings. They embody hope and resilience, the capacity for new life to grow from old roots.
Trees bring comfort in trouble. ‘Every day I visit my favourite tree,’ said a friend who had cancer. ‘They cut it down,’ she told us sadly some weeks later. Soon afterwards, she died.
Later, the mystics transformed the day [of Tu BiShevat] into a meditation on the Tree of Life. With its roots in heaven, its branches reaching down to the earth and its sap nourishing all creation, it symbolised the vital interdependence of all life. We may or may not believe that God is their gardener, but we know that trees, absorbing carbon, exhaling oxygen, retaining soil, restraining floods and providing food and refuge for people and animals, are essential to life on earth.
With striking relevance, the mystics defined sin as ‘cutting off the shoots,’ severing ourselves from the sacred Tree of Life which, in our presumed superiority, we consider ourselves entitled to rob and tear. …
Today Tu Bishevat is an urgent call to join the worldwide effort to reforest, rewild and protect what ancient woods and tree species remain. ‘There’s a time to plant,’ taught Ecclesiastes two millennia ago. Even if you hear the Messiah coming, don’t abandon your spade, the rabbis insisted. First finish planting, then greet the redeemer. They understood that there could be no world-to-come, no future, without trees.
In a seminal report last summer, Professor Crowther highlighted the world’s need for trillions more trees and showed, by means of complex satellite photography, where they could and should be planted. The Jewish community is eager to respond. Its new project, JTree.global, just taking root in the UK, The States and elsewhere, is a channel for planting locally and internationally through sustainable and ethical environmental organisation. Like the Church’s Lambeth forest, planned for this year, it signifies the commitment by all faiths to respond to the climate emergency.
Trees are no panacea against global warming. If we truly respect the tree of life, we must consume less, waste less and share the world with greater equality and humility. But celebrating trees is something positive and essential which all of us can do. It brings joy, strengthening us communally, ecologically and spiritually.
When a tree is cut down, a cry traverses the world, yet nobody hears, the rabbis noted sadly. Perhaps we have finally begun to listen.
Jonathan Wittenberg is Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism and co-founder of Eco Synagogue and JTree.global