A Tree of Life – and life giving trees: Tu b’Shevat

“One day Choni the circle maker was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready-grown] carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted these for me so I too plant these for my children”.            ( Talmud Bavli: Taanit 23a)

Trees are deeply important in our tradition, and also have their own relationship with God. They are prominent in our texts – mentioned at the Creation, vital to the narrative in the Garden of Eden; the Hebrew word for tree appears in the bible over 150 times and more than 100 different kinds of trees, shrubs and plants are named. The Mishnah follows suit, naming hundreds more plants in its legal codification. In all more than 500 different plants are named in our traditional texts.  Trees are a signifier of the connection the Jews have with the land, and reflect the relationship that we have with the Land of Israel – Moses repeatedly reminds us that we must care for the land and treat it well, and not only land but people – otherwise we will be driven out from there as other nations apparently were before us.  

Trees have a special place in how we create awareness of God. For they are not only part of the natural world, they are also used repeatedly in our texts as a metaphor for humanity, for life, for reaching upwards to God and rooting the self in the world.  Trees symbolise so much, they have a quasi-divine element, a quasi-human element. They feed us, they provide shelter, they bridge the generations, and they act as a bellwether for our moral state.

We read in Deuteronomy “ When you will besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees by wielding an axe against them; you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged by you? (20:19)

This image, comparing the fruit tree to human beings, powerfully reminds us of the damage that can be inflicted in a war between people, and in obliging us to protect the trees reminds us of what we have in common with them. If we should not cut down the fruit bearing tree, how much more so should we consider the safety of the people being besieged?

We are about to celebrate the festival of Tu b’Shevat – the fifteenth day of the month Shevat. Originally Tu b’Shevat was simply the way by which the age of trees was measured for purpose of tithing and of orlah (the first three years when the fruit was considered strictly God’s property and not to be eaten by anyone). In effect it marks the boundary of a tax year.

After the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70CE the taking of tithes from fruit trees fell into disuse, but the date remained special in our calendars. The Mishnah recorded four new years  and their dates: – Rosh Hashanah le’ilanot (Tu b’Shevat) for trees, Rosh Hashanah for years, Rosh Hashanah lema’aser behemah for tithing animals, and Rosh Hashanah le’mel’achim for counting the years of a king’s reign.

The date of Tu b’Shevat has stayed in our calendar throughout the time we were without our land, celebrated and noted by communities all over the world. The Kabbalists of Sfat in the 16th and 17th century developed a ritual – the Tu b’Shevat Seder – to represent our connection to the land of Israel and also to reflect the mystical concept of God’s relationship with our world being like a tree.  The Seder consisted of eating the different types of traditional fruits grown in Israel and connecting the different types of these fruit with each the Four Worlds of Kabbalistic theology, drinking four cups of wine that were each mixed with different proportions of wine with each cup of wine symbolizing one of the four seasons, and reading texts about trees.

The mystics understand Tu B’Shevat as being the day when the Tree of Life renews the flow of life to the universe.  And they taught that by offering blessings on Tu B’Shevat, a person can help in the healing of the world. From this came the belief that since on Tu B’Shevat we offer a blessing for each fruit before we consume it, the more fruits we eat, the more blessings we can offer to help heal the world.

In more modern times Tu b’Shevat has been a gift to the Zionist movement and the return to the Land. They have used it as an opportunity to plant trees in Israel as a way of transforming  the land, as well as re-attaching ourselves to the physical Land of Israel. And most recently the Jewish ecological movements have adopted the day to remind us in  powerful messages of our obligation to care for the environment.

All these themes bound up in Tu b’Shevat are important and helpful to our own Jewish identity and spirituality. There is an overarching theme of healing the world through our connections with nature, of the importance and symbiosis of our relationship with the natural world. And in our relationship with nature, we express our relationship with God. Caring for our world is a sacred task. As we read in Proverbs (3:18)

עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃ 

[Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her is happy.

Our tradition asks: “How can a person of flesh and blood follow God? … God, from the very beginning of creation, was occupied before all else with planting.  Therefore … occupy yourselves first and foremost with planting.  – Midrash: Leviticus Rabbah 25:3

It reminds us that  “If you have a sapling in your hand and people tell you that the Messiah has come, plant the sapling and then go and greet him” (Avot de Rabbi Natan)

Ki HaAdam Etz Ha’Sadeh – human beings and trees, or “none of us thrive uprooted”

In the book of Deuteronomy in a passage describing the rules for besieging a city we find a curious phrase: “When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field human, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, those you may destroy and cut down, that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with thee, until it fall.” (20:19-20)

It begins with the prohibition against destroying trees, and clarifies that the trees to be protected are those that bear edible produce, but within the arc we find the phrase “ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” and this has always been a verse that has resonated for me far beyond the rules prohibiting scorched earth policies in war. It can be read either as a question or as a statement of truth, either “Are trees of the field [like] human beings?” or “Human beings are [like] trees of the field”

Trees are everywhere in bible, sometimes for good, sometimes less so. Abraham enters the land from Haran via Shechem and arrives at Elon Moreh (the terebinth (oak) tree of Moreh, he  is encamped under the terebinth of Mamre when God comes to him to tell him Isaac will be born, Deborah the nurse of Rebecca is buried under a terebinth tree,   Jacob buries the household idols of Laban under a terebinth, Deborah sits and judges under a palm tree, David fights Goliath in the valley of the Elah (terebinth), Hosea describes idolaters as worshiping at various trees – “They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and offer upon the hills, under oaks and poplars and terebinths, because the shadow thereof is good;

The Israelite religion valued trees but had an uneasy relationship with them insofar as the hated and dominant Canaanite tradition was one of tree worship. The mother goddess Asherah was associated with sacred trees,  Asherah/Asherim  are  described more than thirty times in the biblical narrative as being a cult centred on a pole or stylised tree, or else a sacred grove of trees. It was to be feared and to be rooted out.

And then of course there are famous trees right at the beginning of the biblical narrative – those planted in the Garden of Eden, not only those whose fruit could be eaten, but more particularly the two from which nothing must be taken – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Eternal Life. The trees with which our ambivalence begins.

While the sacred trees of the Asherah/Asherim have been uprooted from the traditions of the biblical Israelite people, we have taken the tree for ourselves –  big time. The candelabrum in the desert tent which transferred to the Temple is modelled on a tree, and botanical terms are used. That candelabrum remains the most ancient symbol of Judaism.  We are used to Torah being described as Etz Hayim, a Tree of Life.  Trees are used in parables and as analogies. Look at Jotham’s use of them to describe the choice of Abimelech as king (Judges 9) or Ezekiel’s use of the cedar and the trees of the field to symbolise Israel and the other nations.  Look at the psalmist who describes the righteous person as like a tree planted by the waters. Wherever you look in bible you can find trees.

So this phrase “Ki Ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” fits into a long and rich tradition and certainly is the subject of a great deal of halachic and aggadic attention and interpretation.

Its plain meanings – the rhetorical question asking whether a tree should pay the price for human greed or stupidity, and the idea that human beings are comparable to trees of the field are both explored, and while for many years I have focused on this as a question which underlies the importance of preserving the fruit trees rather than weaponising them or wasting them in war, this year I found myself niggled into a slightly different direction.

Human beings are [like] trees of the field.

In what way are we like the trees of the field? I think because we put down roots and we reach to the stars. Our roots are hidden away, a complex network of sustaining relationships, anchoring us, holding us to our history, giving us the wherewithal to grow. Our bodies grow, we become a presence in the world that can be fruitful and filled with life. We yearn ever upwards, yet in so doing we can offer shade, shelter, fruit, support to each other. We respond to our environment and we shape our environment.

In the wonderful book “The hidden life of trees” the author Peter Wohlleben writes ““When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you “help” individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbours in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren’t particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. And there are now a lot of losers in the forest. Weaker members, who would once have been supported by the stronger ones, suddenly fall behind. Whether the reason for their decline is their location and lack of nutrients, a passing malaise, or genetic makeup, they now fall prey to insects and fungi.”

No tree provides everything we need, just as no one person or relationship can provide everything in life:  diversity is important for us. And trees are rarely naturally isolated, even in the biblical desert they generally grow and thrive in groups.  Like trees, we are relational beings, we need each other, we need community.

As the news every day seems to bring yet more stories of those who have been uprooted from their communities because of war and its attendant problems of violence, terror, starvation and chaos, I see how the verse comes alive. Trees are innocent bystanders in war and must be protected. They are the resource from which new society may grow, and to uproot them or damage them may destroy the potential future. As refugees flee into hopeful sanctuary, we know that they are leaving behind a barren landscape where life cannot continue. As refugees enter a new country they bring with them all the possibilities of regeneration, even where despair and terror appears  to have caused irreparable harm – still the hopeful green shoots appear from what looks like the dead stump. People who have been uprooted have lost much more than material possessions – they lose part of their history and much of their future. Their present feels fragile and vulnerable – will they be supported, will they be able to create networks and become part of community, will they be able once more to grow.

As I look at the news stories my heart breaks. Young children alone and scared in Europe, sent by parents desperate to give them a chance at life. Whole families or lone individuals trying to reach safety in rickety boats on treacherous seas.  Victims of trafficking who cannot understand the system which is trying to keep them out. Victims of violence who survive as an act of will. Everyone cut off at the roots, anxiously trying to regrow, to find some shelter and space and sustenance. No one uproots themselves willingly – it is always a final act of desperation.

At Tu b’shevat we celebrate the trees of our land. We plant more, we clear round others so they can reach the light, we mark the new year of life. And this is good, but as the bible reminds us human beings also need what trees need. And so we must find the space for those fleeing the war in their own land to put down roots in ours, help to create the networks of relationships that will support them, give them the wherewithal to flourish. If we protect a material tree from the trauma of war surrounding it, how much more should we be protecting the human being, part of our own family tree, from such trauma.?