Happy New Year, Tree of Life

Tu B’Shevat, the Fifteenth of the Jewish month of Shevat, is the New Year for trees. As with anything else in Judaism, there are many different yet compatible interpretations of the holiday. Some today view it as an opportunity to renew a commitment to environmentalism. Others donate money to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel. Still others may find ways to contribute to their communities by volunteering for pea patch gardening projects. In the Hebraic Age, Tu B’Shevat marked the lifespan of trees for purposes of tithing to the Temple. During the Middle Ages, the Kabbalists created a special Seder for this holiday, with wine and fruit to symbolize the emanations of God.

The Tree of Life is a symbol for God and Torah. The seasonal cycles of trees remind us of our own cycles: death and birth, despair and renewed hope. In Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s book Seasons of Our Joy, he explains that just as Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for the Jewish people, Tu B’Shevat may be considered a kind of New Year for God, representing a resurgence of divine energy in the natural world.

If we want to be ecologically minded, what kind of Tu B’Shevat Seder best represents our values? Should we import the traditional dates, figs, carob, pomegranates, olives, oranges, and spices? Should we instead serve varieties of fruit grown organically in our own region? Should these fruits be cultivated within 100 miles of our Seder? 50 miles? What about the wine? What about the plates, tablecloths, napkins, and utensils? Are they washable or compostable? If Tu B’Shevat is our Jewish Earth Day, perhaps we should make the content of our celebrations match that commitment. The symbolism includes fruits which can be eaten whole (e.g. strawberries), those with a pit or seed (cherries, peaches), and those with a hard or woody exterior (coconuts, pineapples.)

On the Gregorian calendar, Tu B’Shevat 2010 falls on January 30th. Here is a link to what I feel is a beautiful and inspiring Tu B’Shevat Haggadah by Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal.

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