With all the talk about the environmental protection, who
was the first to actually celebrate nature with a special
Long before Earth Day, Arbor Day – and even before
Al Gore – the Jewish calendar honors Tu B'Shevat,
the 15th of Shevat – celebrated this year on Shabbat, January
30, 2010 – as the day that marks the beginning of a “New
Year for Trees.” This is the season in which the earliest-blooming
trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep
and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle.
We observe Tu B'Shevat by eating fruit, particularly
from the kinds that are singled out by the Torah in its
praise of the bounty of the Holy Land: grapes, figs, pomegranates,
olives and dates. On this day we remember that “Man
is a tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19) and reflect
on the lessons we can derive from our botanical analogue.
Appreciating the Divine in everything around us –
especially the habitat that provides us sustenance and allows
us to live – is the essence of the entire purpose
Rabbi Joseph Isaac writes in his memoirs: One day in
the summer of 1896, my father took me for a walk in the
fields. The crops were ripening. A light breeze moved through
the sheaves, eras of corn nodded and whispered to each other.
My father said to me: “see my son - Divinity! Each
movement of every ear of corn, and of every tuft of grass,
was anticipated in the principal thought of the cosmic primordial
man.” (to simplify, maybe we should just say: is part
of G-d’s master plan).
We had gone into the forest, and I, absorbed in our
conversation, stirred by the sound of my father’s
voice and the purity of his words, had distractedly broken
off a leaf from a tree and was holding it in my hand, tearing
it to bits and dropping the pieces to the ground.
My father said: ‘The holy Ari used to say, apart from
the fact that every leaf of a tree is a creature that has
in it divine life, and was created by G-d for some predesigned
purpose, there is also contained in every leaf a spark of
some soul that has descended to this world in order to be
“And now, regard how careful a man must be in this world,
whether awake or asleep. See, even now, as we were speaking
about divine providence, you absentmindedly plucked a leaf
, held it in your hand, tore it into little pieces, and
scattered the pieces to the ground. Should one regard the
G-d’s creations so lightly? The Creator wrought this creation
too for some purpose, there is divine life in it. Within
its own body is contained its own life. In what way is the
‘I’ in the leaf less than your ‘I?’ Yes, there is a great
difference. The leaf is in the category of the vegetative
world, and you in the category of the ‘human.’ But everything
created has its own end, and its divine obligation to accomplish
something in the world.”
Sensitivity is not arbitrary. Some of us are sensitive
only to certain people and at certain times. It is not uncommon
to find executive sharks that are merciless in their business
dealings, while behaving like gentle lambs with their own
children and families. Not to be outdone, there is also
the parent that for some reason demonstrates more love to
strangers than to his or her own children. Then, there is
“seasonal” sensitivity, displayed only at particular
moments, when convenient or just at the whim and mood of
the bestower happening to be in a benevolent frame of mind.
Any sensitivity, especially in our harsh world, is always
welcome. But true sensitivity is one that is not compartmentalized.
Because sensitivity driven by personal interest can, and
inevitably will, always be arbitrary. If you are sensitive
on your own terms, then who is to say when those terms will
dictate turning against a loved one? If you are insensitive
to some people or in some situations and times, you ultimately
will be – if and when it suits you – insensitive
to other people, situations and times.
During World War II unspeakable evil was perpetrated against
humans while the same barbarians – no need to mention
them by name – legislated extreme measures of empathy
to… dogs and cats.
Sensitivity is a state of being, not an act. A noun, not
a verb. A sensitive person is sensitive all the time (even
asleep), to all people and in all situations.
Man is a tree of the field. The New Year of Trees makes
us aware of our intimate dependence and integral connection
with the “field” (world) in which we live. And
thus, the profound sensitivity to all that grows and all
that breathes around us.
The only reason, the Torah teaches, we may consume or use
elements of nature for our personal needs, is not because
we have a right to them, but because we have the responsibility
and privilege to refine, elevate and perfect the environment.
We have this right only when we use nature for positive
and constructive ends, to civilize and enhance the world,
morally and ethically, for good and holy purposes. If we
don't, we do not have the right to even touch any part of
Man is a tree of the field. The New Year of Trees teaches
us that life consists of two elements: Man and the field
(universe). Man is the subject. The universe is the object.
A human being takes an object of the universe, say an apple
off a tree, and eats it. He can use the energy from this
food for destructive purposes; he can use it neutrally,
for optional acts; or—and this is its purpose—use
it towards constructive ends. We have the power and dominance
over nature; we have the ability to destroy it, maintain
its neutral state, or elevate it.
Our sages state two reasons why the human, the crown jewel
of creation, was created last, after all other creatures.
One reason is because you first set the table and then invite
your special guest to dine. The second reason, which seems
to contradict the first, is that if the human being misbehaves
and transgresses, he is told that even the lowly insect
preceded his creation. How do we reconcile the two? Depending
on our own behavior, we determine which one we are: the
special guest or inferior to the insect. The human race
was given free choice. As the universe's crown jewel, we
can either elevate the universe by lifting our environment
to a greater place; or if we are destructive, and act not
in synch with the Engineer’s plans, then, as the Chassidic
saying goes, the “cobblestones cry out: what right
do you have to walk on me?” We have become inferior
even to an insect, which has not digressed from its purpose.
We are all responsible for the environment around us. We
have no right to hurt or damage any object in this universe,
from the largest animal to the smallest insect, from the
mammoth to the microscopic components of nature. Everything
was created for a purpose and we are responsible to care
for and protect every part of existence, whether it is human,
animal, vegetable or mineral. Moreover, we are responsible
to help it reach its fullest potential in realizing the
purpose of its creation.
Responsibility for our universe is great gift. It is the
gift of being active participants in the dynamic unfolding
of the world’s destiny.
So we have one day in the year when we are asked to think
not about ourselves but about the trees and vegetation around
us. This requires humility and discipline. With all our
preoccupations, it may seem trivial to “stop and smell
the roses,” but in return we develop a deeper sensitivity
to every thing, every one and every moment – even
Man is a tree of the field. Appreciating the environment
is not merely a crusade and another cause; it reflects awareness
of the Divine in all. In makes us more cognizant of every
detail in life. How one virtuous deed affects the delicate
balance on which the fate of the world hangs. You can have
a positive impact on every person you meet and on every
space you travel through. One act can save a life, and a
life is an entire universe.
In our complicated and troubling world – a spiraling
economy, leaderless leaders, global anxiety, a nervous sense
of inevitability – it’s good to step back and
remember our symbiotic relationship with nature; our roots
embedded in the fields of earth. We must take responsibility
for each other. We are all that we have. And G-d.
It can be very healing to lift our eyes to heaven, look
at the trees around us, peer inside the tree that is man,
and bid them a Happy New Year.