by Nigel Savage
Thursday, January 18, 2018 | 2 Shevat 5778
Tu b’Shvat is “the new year for trees.” But, above and beyond the history – the tax year in temple times; the kabbalists in Safed; the JNF; the contemporary Jewish environmental movement – the deeper question is, what can, could, or should Tu b’Shvat mean to me today?
We know that each of the chagim comes to remind us of something that, ideally, we should be thinking of the whole year round. Pesach reminds us to get rid of our chametz, literal and metaphorical. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come to remind us to do teshuva. Chanukah comes to remind us of light in the darkness.
In the deepest sense, Tu b’Shvat comes to awaken in us a sense of the miraculousness of the world that sustains us, and of the Jewish injunction that we not take that for granted.
Years ago I did a shabbaton with Thich Nhat Hanh in Israel, and simply to see him walk – this tall skinny monk, smiling, present, radiating kindliness – was to be reminded about the rabbinical adage of learning by watching one’s rabbi tie their shoelaces. Watching Thich Nhat Hanh walk – or sit, or talk, for that matter – was to be reminded of what it is to live with an awareness of miraculousness. He once wrote, “the miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”
And this doesn’t just apply if we’re a Vietnamese Buddhist, nor if – for instance – we work for an organization like Hazon. Tu b’Shvat is real and it is a gift for us from the tradition – a gift that invites us to give back; to learn, to remember, to listen, and thus to be our best selves.
So by all means use one or more of the resources on our website. Certainly go to a Tu b’Shvat seder, or host one. But know, most critically, that the customs that have evolved for a Tu b’Shvat seder – four cups of wine; the fruit and nuts, and so on – these things are simanim, symbols and metaphors. More important than whether you do or don’t host a seder or do or don’t use these symbols is whether you do or don’t foster your own awareness of our daily miracles, and the extent to which we each of us are part of the problem or the solution.
If you want to see maybe the coolest homepage of a website that I’ve ever seen, click here. Tim Flach is a photographer who, most recently, has been taking photographs of endangered species, and has chosen – deliberately – to use the style of (human) portrait photography, to try to awaken in us some sense of empathy for the creatures that we are driving to extinction. (It’ll take you maybe 60 seconds to scroll through this online slideshow of some of his photographs. If you want to see just one, this Saiga antelope is my favorite.)
The environmental movement has been at pains to point out that “environmentalism” is not (just) about “saving the whales.” Refugees in and from the Middle East, rising asthma rates in the USA, falling fish stocks, and the quality of water in Flint, MI are all (directly or indirectly) caused by, and symptomatic of, the current environmental crisis. And Jewish tradition is anthropocentric, not biocentric, and, despite our reverence for the natural world, we (rightly) privilege the needs of human beings over those of other sentient beings.
But in our generation we have learned – we should have learned; we should learn – that this is not either/or. It is humanity’s arrogance – the terrible tragedy of modernism – that enables us to speed ahead, doing willy-nilly damage in our wake.
And so we need to rekindle our sense of awe, not merely to have compassion for the beautiful creatures being destroyed by the compound impacts of human behavior, but rather because we need that sense of awe – on a daily basis – in order to help us to stop, slow down, take stock, change our ways.
Hazon is here to serve the Jewish community and the wider world, in this regard. When a kid comes out of Teva, or an Adamahnik graduates from Adamah, or a city family spends a weekend recharging at Isabella Freedman; in these, and in myriad other ways, we want to help us all, directly or indirectly, gently, to critique our way of life, to self-critique it, to do so with love and generosity… and thus to make change.
So plan your Tu b’Shvat. It’s in a little under two weeks – the night of Tuesday, January 30th, and the day of Wednesday, the 31st. Do your own Tu b’Shvat seder. Go for a walk or a hike. Watch David Attenborough. Sign your kids up for Eden Village or Ramah of the Rockies. Take the Wednesday off work – seriously – and go do something with your kids or your parents or your friends. Read something inspiring. And, most of all, allow Tu b’Shvat to do what it is there to do, which is to help you to decide to change something, large or small, in your life; something that will let you feel like you’re really trying to be part of the solution.
We have a range of resources on Tu b’Shvat, and you can find them here.