Sermon: 15 January 2022
Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 17 January 2022
In his magnificent book Landscape and Memory, the historian Simon Schama relates how, in his childhood religion school, he saved sixpences to buy leaves which he would stick on a card with a picture of a tree. When he had a certain number of leaves, it meant he had saved enough to buy a tree in Israel. I remember doing the same thing in my cheder at Hendon United Synagogue.
But I don’t remember being told why trees were so important in Israel. Schama suggests that a rooted forest symbolises the opposite of drifting sand. Diaspora life was like that sand; Israeli life, by contrast, was solidly anchored, like those trees for which we were collecting. Our adhesive frenzy reached a climax on Tu Bishvat – though that was all we did to mark Tu Bishvat.
The Mishnah records that, in ancient Palestine, Tu Bishvat was one of four new years in the annual cycle. The first of Tishri, our Rosh Hashanah, was the date for reckoning festivals; the first of Nisan was the New Year for kings, from which point the length of their reign would be measured; the first of Elul, the New Year for the tax on cattle; and 15 Shvat, Tu Bishvat, Rosh HaShanah la’Ilanot, the point from which tithes for fruit trees were calculated. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)
Trees and forests are often seen as the primal birthplaces of nations. Open woodland suggests something pastoral, calm, peaceful, idyllic. The greenwood is where people can be free, secure from oppression – like Robin Hood and his merrie men, for example, in Sherwood Forest.
But forests can also be dark, foreboding places. Unsavoury, dangerous things lurk among those densely-packed trees. Red Riding Hood wouldn’t be quite the same if her grandmother’s cottage hadn’t been in the middle of a dark forest.
The tree is a powerful metaphor. We use it to describe the succession of generations: we speak of family ‘trees,’ ‘branches’ of the family, researching our ‘roots’ and so on.
The Torah almost personifies trees. Deuteronomy forbids destroying fruit trees when besieging a city. “Are trees of the field human,” it asks “that they can withdraw before you into a besieged city?” (Deut 20:19) A curious phrase. Of course trees aren’t human! But the rhetorical question serves its purpose, linking the two in our minds.
God’s major work in the Garden of Eden was to do with trees. “God planted a garden in Eden …. and from the ground God made all sorts of trees to grow.” (Genesis 2:8-9) The Israelites are told that when they enter the land they have to plant trees – a sort of imitatio dei, an imitation of God. Just as God planted trees, so should we
The first words that God addresses to human beings are p’ru ur’vu, “be fruitful and multiply.” (Genesis 1:28)
To plant is to learn to make room for something beyond ourselves – for generations as yet unborn. Planting is an act of commitment to the future. Another cluster of metaphors surrounds planting: we talk of children as the ‘fruit of our loins,’ of projects coming to ‘fruition,’ bearing fruit, and so on.
It’s as if planting trees and procreation are in some sense the same sort of activity, which in Hebrew, of course, they are: p’ru, ‘be fruitful,’ and peri, ‘fruit,’ as in borei peri hagafen, are from the same root. The Torah takes that connection even further. When we plant trees, we are forbidden to eat their fruit in the first three years. This might be good agricultural practice, giving trees a chance to reach maturity. But the Torah isn’t meant to be an instruction manual for farmers. The forbidden fruit of those first three years is called, curiously, areyl, meaning ‘uncircumcised.’ (Leviticus 19:23)
Curiously but not surprisingly, maybe. Calling it areyl highlights that connection between trees and procreation –circumcision is, of course, done on the procreative organ.
In the Garden of Eden, a tree plays a central role. There had been harmony between Creator and created. The first couple disrupted that harmony by eating the fruit.
Is Tu Bishvat a symbolic act of reparation and repentance, for having eaten the fruit in the Garden? Then – eating fruit was an act of rebellion against a command; on Tu Bishvat, it becomes an act of compliance with a command. Then – it was eaten out of greed and desire; on Tu Bishvat it’s eaten as a mitzvah, a celebration. Then – it led to disharmony between human beings and nature; on Tu Bishvat we are reminded of our interconnectedness.
But that tree of knowledge wasn’t the only named tree in the Garden – there was also the eytz chayyim, the Tree of Life. They were expelled from the Garden lest they might also eat from that Tree and live forever.
But we have, of course, been eating that fruit for nigh on three millennia, and living forever, as it were. We tasted it this morning when Brenda read the shirah; we taste it every time we read Torah. We sing eytz chayyim hi la’machazikim bah, a verse from the book of Proverbs (3:18) It is a tree of life to all who grasp it. When that verse speaks of eytz chayyim it is actually referring to ‘wisdom.’ By a clever bit of rabbinic interpretation, that eytz chayyim came to be seen as the Torah. Our Jewish identity, our life, our practice are related to what is contained on that roll of parchment – and that parchment is wound onto two rollers, themselves called atzei chayyim. Because of it, we have indeed, enjoyed eternal life, which we acknowledge every time we say the blessing after an aliyah: v’chayye olam natah b’tocheynu “who has planted eternal life within us.”
In ancient times, Tu Bishvat marked the beginning of a tax year. Once Jews no longer lived in Eretz Yisrael in significant numbers, however, it fell out of practice – until the kabbalists of Tsefat revived it a bit in the 16th century. But it was really the Zionist Movement which brought it to prominence.
Simon Schama, Colin Eimer and thousands of Jewish kids sticking little leaves to trees, JNF collecting boxes, named forests in Israel, certificates of trees planted in Israel given as Barmitzvah presents, Israeli schoolkids planting saplings on Tu Bishat: all testify to that almost-mystical aura that planting trees has assumed in Israel.
In the 1960’s, Tu Bishvat metamorphosed yet again to become the Jewish festival, par excellence, speaking of our relationship with the natural world. We are only leaseholders, caretakers of that world. God commanded Adam and Eve in the Garden l’ovdah ul’shomrah “to work it and keep it.” A couple of generations ago, few people spoke about the destruction of the natural world. Now we can see that we’ve been following only the ‘work it’ part of God’s command but much less of the bit about ‘keeping it,’ protecting it.
But even that is no longer enough. ‘Protecting it’ can simply be little more than enlightened self-interest: we protect it because it satisfies our needs, not because there is something intrinsic in-and-of-itself that is not ours to play fast and loose with.
Not that long ago, many might have argued “we can work it – let’s just do it a bit more sensibly than we’ve done in the past.” But the poverty of that way of seeing our relationship with the world has become abundantly, unavoidably clear in so many ways that scarcely need spelling out.
Tu Bishvat suggests restoring something of the harmony found in the Garden of Eden through that much bandied about phrase, tikkun olam – ‘repairing the world.’ In a few moments we’ll recite the Alenu. The traditional Reform (if I may put it that way) 2nd paragraph speaks of “all accepting the duty of building Your kingdom.” Here at Alyth we usually read the alternative 2nd paragraph, on the next page. It recognises that it’s not enough to talk of “accepting the duty of building Your kingdom.” We’ve know we’ve not been great at doing that. What we read spells it out: “we are all partners in the repairing of Your world.” To ensure a better survival, there’s an actual, physical repair job needed, involving every person. COP26 last November spoke of the unavoidable task of making this decade one of real, concerted action on climate change.
For this to be effective, though, requires a parallel spiritual repair job – a reorientation of priorities, a reordering of values, coming to a deeper and fuller understanding of what is called ‘deep ecology’ – an understanding that this world is too fragile to exist simply to satisfy our needs. As Rabbi John Rayner put it, “In our relations with the natural environment – animal, vegetable and mineral – there should be something of humility and respect” (Principles of Jewish Ethics from a progressive point of view, 1998) Item 110
‘Humility’ comes from the same Latin root as the word ‘humus,’ the ground, the soil. In Tu Bishvat terms, humility means being ‘grounded,’ ‘earthed,’ having a realistic sense of who we are, how we fit into the world around us, how we use or abuse our power vis-à-vis that world. If Tu Bishvat can deepen our awareness, lead to positive action, then we can say dayennu.