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)

Parashat Yitro: the first learning of the people is that the earth belongs to God

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“If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)

The setting is shortly before the giving of the Torah at Sinai. God has called Moses up the mountain and told him what he must say to the Israelites encamped below.  There is about to be a particular agreement made between them and God, and embedded in it will be a special relationship – conditional on the people of Israel obeying God and keeping the covenant, they will become a “segulah” – a treasure, and they will become a nation with a special priestly role in the world. The idea is repeated in several places in bible, but in this (first) iteration, is the additional phrase “Ki li col ha’aretz” – all the earth is Mine”

There is a parallel passage in the book of Leviticus – in parashat Behar, which claims to be reporting  that which was said at Sinai, we are told “(25:23) “ And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and settlers with Me” Ki li ha’aretz” – for the earth is Mine.

At Sinai, when the people meet God, the message is made very clear –the earth and all that is in it is ultimately the possession of God. The plagues which had allowed them to be free of their slavery – these were phenomena of God. Sinai and her mysterious  shaking/smoking/shofar is also a manifestation of God’s power in the world. God is fully in charge of the earth – the world and everything in it is subject to God and God’s will.

At Sinai in parashat Yitro and beyond, the people will receive not only the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments – they will also receive the Mishpatim, all the laws and sub-clauses of the covenant with God. And many of these are to do with proper treatment of the land.  In the resonant text in Leviticus quoted above, they will receive the laws of shemittah and yovel – the cycle of letting the land rest, and of liberating and redistributing the land itself every 50 years.

When God introduces Godself to the people, it is with the phrase “for all the earth is Mine”. In part this is a necessary clarification of monotheism – there is only the one God, not the many manifestations beloved by the ancient world of agricultural peoples. But it is also the clarification that we are not – and never shall be – the owners of the earth. We are at best its stewards; it can never be sold to others or worked into barrenness. It is not something to be exploited or used to give us status or power over others. As the psalmist writes (Psalm 24)

לַֽ֭יהֹוָה הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל וְי֣שְׁבֵי בָֽהּ: ב כִּי ה֖וּא עַל־יַמִּ֣ים יְסָדָ֑הּ וְעַל־נְ֝הָר֗וֹת יְכוֹנְנֶֽהָ: ג מִי־יַֽ֭עֲלֶה בְהַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֑ה וּמִי־יָ֝קוּם בִּמְק֥וֹם קָדְשֽׁוֹ: ד נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּבַ֢ר לֵ֫בָ֥ב אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹא־נָשָׂ֣א לַשָּׁ֣וְא נַפְשִׁ֑י וְלֹ֖א נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לְמִרְמָֽה: ה יִשָּׂ֣א בְ֭רָכָה מֵאֵ֣ת יְהֹוָ֑ה וּ֝צְדָקָ֗ה מֵאֱ֘לֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעֽוֹ:

The earth is the Eternal’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein

For God has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods. Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Eternal? and who shall stand in God’s holy place?  The one who has clean hands, and a pure heart;  who has not taken My name in vain, and has not sworn deceitfully.  That one shall receive a blessing from the Eternal, and righteousness from the God of salvation.

Our agreement with God is predicated on our good relationship with the land. And the land’s fertility and accommodation to us is predicated on our good relationship with God, as described in the covenant at Sinai and beyond. In our relationship with God, the land has agency, is both sign and symptom of our connection.

There is already a hint of the overarching power of God in the world, and the meaning this gives our role in the world, in two earlier places in bible – both of which involve “outsiders”. When Malchitzedek, priest and king of Salem, greets Abram after the war of the four against the five, he makes a sacrifice of celebration, and says (Gen 14:19)

בָּר֤וּךְ אַבְרָם֙ לְאֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן קֹנֵ֖ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ:

Blessed  is Avram of the Most High God, owner of the heavens and the earth

Later, when Moses speaks to Pharaoh after the plague of hail, Pharaoh entreats Moses to ask God to cease the thunderstorms and the people will go free – and Moses replies “as I leave the city I will spread my hands to God and the thunder will cease…so that you will know that the earth belongs to God. (Exodus 9:29)

The plagues are not only for the Pharaoh or for the Egyptian people to understand the power of God in the world, they are also for the Israelite people trapped in slavery – the God who will lead them out of their misery is the ultimate power, who owns heaven and earth and all that is in them and on them.

So when God tells Moses to tell the encamped ex-slaves down below that God is the owner of heaven and earth, it is not new information, but is being stated here because the covenant depends on their – and our – understanding that we do not own the earth, that we are temporary residents upon it, that our behaviour will dictate whether we are able to live out our days in comfort and plenty – or not.

This week as we celebrated the minor festival of Tu Bishvat, we are reminded that of all the fruit we harvest, a portion must be given in tithe – to go to the priesthood, the vulnerable, those without land to create their own food supply. For the first three years (Tu bishvat is the cut-off date for the years since planting) the fruit will not be eaten (orlah), then the system of tithing (maaser sheni  and maaser  ani) would make the owner of the tree liable for giving a tenth of its produce to the Jerusalem Temple and to the poor.

Harvesting the fruit of a tree is labour intensive work. Giving away a portion of the fruit means we are constantly aware that the tree does not ultimately belong to us – we have use of it, we take care of it, but we cannot own it, nor the land it is rooted in.

As the people camp at the foot of Mt Sinai, the first learning they do is to understand that the earth and everything on it belongs to God.  Whatever our contract with God gives us or demands from us, ultimately this is God’s earth and we are sojourners and settlers who must treat it well or lose the privilege of the land.

We have grown used to ignoring this idea, to buying and selling land and natural resources, to plundering and over-fertilizing and gouging and sowing and tilling and harvesting as we like. We have grown used to making the land serve us rather than we serve it. Tu biShvat, and the words of God in introduction from Sinai  in this sidra come to remind us. “The earth and its fullness belong only to God”.

Parashat Ithrò: il primo apprendimento del popolo è che la terra appartiene a Dio

Di rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato l’11 febbraio 2020

Ordunque se voi obbedirete alla Mia voce e manterrete il Mio patto sarete per me quale tesoro tra tutti i popoli, poiché a Me appartiene tutta la terra. E voi sarete per me un reame di sacerdoti, una nazione consacrata”. (Esodo 19: 5-6)

Lo scenario si colloca poco prima della consegna della Torà al Sinai. Dio ha chiamato Mosè sul monte e gli ha detto cosa doveva dire agli israeliti accampati più sotto. Sta per esserci un accordo particolare tra loro e Dio, e in esso si inserirà una relazione speciale, subordinata al fatto che il popolo di Israele obbedisca a Dio e mantenga l’alleanza: diventeranno una “segulà“, un tesoro, e diventeranno una nazione con un ruolo sacerdotale speciale nel mondo. L’idea si ripete in diversi punti della Bibbia, ma in questa (prima) iterazione, c’è la frase aggiuntiva “Ki li col ha haaretz” – tutta la terra è Mia”.

C’è un passaggio parallelo nel libro del Levitico: nella Parashat Behar, che afferma di riferire ciò che è stato detto al Sinai, ci viene detto (25:23) “E la terra non deve essere venduta per sempre; poiché la terra è mia; poiché voi siete estranei e coloni con Me“, Ki li ha’aretz, “poiché la terra è Mia”.

Al Sinai, quando il popolo incontra Dio, il messaggio è reso molto chiaramente: la terra e tutto ciò che è in essa è, in definitiva, possesso di Dio. Le piaghe che avevano permesso agli ebrei di essere liberi dalla loro schiavitù erano fenomeni di Dio. Anche il Sinai e il suo misterioso scuotimento/fumo/shofar è una manifestazione del potere di Dio nel mondo. Dio è totalmente responsabile della terra: il mondo e tutto ciò che è in esso è soggetto a Dio e alla volontà di Dio.

Al Sinai, nella parashà di Ithrò, e anche oltre, il popolo riceverà non solo le Asseret haDibrot, i Dieci Comandamenti, ma riceverà anche i Mishpatim, tutte le leggi e le sotto-clausole del patto con Dio. E molti di questi hanno a che fare con un adeguato trattamento della terra. Nel testo risonante del Levitico sopra citato, riceveranno le leggi di shemittà e yovel: il ciclo per lasciare riposare la terra e per liberare e ridistribuire la terra stessa ogni cinquanta anni.

Quando Dio si presenta al popolo, è con la frase “perché tutta la terra è mia”. In parte questo è un necessario chiarimento del monoteismo: esiste solo un solo Dio, non le molteplici manifestazioni amate dall’antico mondo dei popoli agricoli. Ma è anche il chiarimento che non siamo, e non saremo mai, i proprietari della terra. Nella migliore delle ipotesi siamo i suoi amministratori; non potrà mai essere venduta ad altri o portata alla sterilità. Non è qualcosa da sfruttare o utilizzare per darci status o potere sugli altri. Come scrive il salmista (Salmo 24)

לַֽ֭יהֹוָה הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל וְי֣שְׁבֵי בָֽהּ: ב כִּי ה֖וּא עַל־יַמִּ֣ים יְסָדָ֑הּ וְעַל־נְ֝הָר֗וֹת יְכוֹנְנֶֽהָ: ג מִי־יַֽ֭עֲלֶה בְהַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֑ה וּמִי־יָ֝קוּם בִּמְק֥וֹם קָדְשֽׁוֹ: ד נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּבַ֢ר לֵ֫בָ֥ב אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹא־נָשָׂ֣א לַשָּׁ֣וְא נַפְשִׁ֑י וְלֹ֖א נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לְמִרְמָֽה: ה יִשָּׂ֣א בְ֭רָכָה מֵאֵ֣ת יְהֹוָ֑ה וּ֝צְדָקָ֗ה מֵאֱ֘לֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעֽוֹ:

            Al Signore appartengono la terra e ciò che essa contiene.

            Poiché Dio ha fondato la terra sui mari e l’ha basata sui fiumi. Chi è degno di salire al monte del Signore e chi potrà stare nel luogo a Lui consacrato? Colui che ha le mani nette ed è puro di cuore; che non si è rivolto a cose false né ha giurato per ingannare. Egli otterrà benedizione dal Signore e la giustizia dal Dio che lo salva.

Il nostro accordo con Dio si basa sul nostro buon rapporto con la terra. E la fertilità e la sistemazione della terra per le nostre esigenze sono basati sul nostro buon rapporto con Dio, come descritto nell’alleanza del Sinai e oltre. Nel nostro rapporto con Dio, la terra ha un ruolo, è sia segno che sintomo della nostra connessione.

C’è già un accenno al potere globale di Dio nel mondo, e il significato che questo conferisce al nostro ruolo nel mondo, in due precedenti luoghi della Bibbia, entrambi i quali coinvolgono “estranei”. Quando Melchisedek, sacerdote e re di Salem, saluta Abramo dopo la guerra dei quattro contro i cinque, fa un sacrificio di celebrazione e dice (Gen 14:19)

בָּר֤וּךְ אַבְרָם֙ לְאֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן קֹנֵ֖ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ         Benedetto tu sia,  Abramo,  dal Dio Altissimo, padrone del cielo e della terra.

            Più tardi, quando Mosè parla al faraone dopo la pestilenza della grandine, il faraone invita Mosè a chiedere a Dio di cessare i temporali e il popolo sarà libero, e Mosè risponde “Appena uscito dalla città stenderò le mani verso il Signore in segno di preghiera e allora i tuoni cesseranno… … affinché tu riconosca che la terra appartiene a Dio”. (Esodo 9:29)

Le piaghe non servono solo per far capire al faraone o al popolo egiziano il potere di Dio nel mondo, ma anche al popolo israelita intrappolato nella schiavitù che il Dio che li condurrà fuori dalla sua miseria è il potere supremo, che possiede il cielo e la terra e tutto ciò che è in loro e su di loro.

Così quando Dio dice a Mosè di dire agli ex schiavi accampati più sotto che Dio è il proprietario del cielo e della terra, non si tratta di informazioni nuove, ma la dichiarazione viene fatta qui perché l’alleanza dipende dalla loro, e nostra, comprensione che non possediamo la terra, che siamo temporaneamente residenti su di essa, che il nostro comportamento determinerà se siamo in grado di vivere i nostri giorni in tutta comodità e abbondanza, o no.

Questa settimana, quando abbiamo celebrato la festa minore di Tu B’Shvat, ci è stato ricordato che di tutto il frutto che raccogliamo, una parte deve essere data in decima, per andare al sacerdozio, ai vulnerabili, ai senza terra per creare il loro approvvigionamento di cibo. Per i primi tre anni (Tu B’Shvat è la data limite per gli anni dalla semina) il frutto non verrà mangiato (orlà), quindi il sistema della decima (maaser sheni e maaser ani) renderebbe responsabile il proprietario dell’albero per la donazione di un decimo dei suoi prodotti al Tempio di Gerusalemme e ai poveri.

La raccolta del frutto di un albero è un lavoro ad alta intensità di fatica. Dare via una porzione del frutto significa che siamo costantemente consapevoli che l’albero non ci appartiene in via definitiva: ne abbiamo uso, ce ne occupiamo, ma non possiamo possederlo, così come la terra in cui è esso è radicato.

Mentre il popolo si accampa ai piedi del Monte Sinai, il suo primo apprendimento è capire che la terra e tutto ciò che vi è in essa appartiene a Dio. Qualsiasi cosa il nostro contratto con Dio, ci dia o esiga da noi, in definitiva questa è la terra di Dio e siamo residenti e coloni che devono trattarla bene o ne perderemo il privilegio.

Ci siamo abituati a ignorare questa idea, ci siamo abituati ad acquistare a vendere i terreni e le risorse naturali, a saccheggiare e all’eccessivamente fertilizzare, a scavare, a seminare, a lavorare e a raccogliere come ci piace. Ci siamo abituati a farci servire dalla terra piuttosto che a servirla. Tu b’Shvat e le parole di Dio introdotte dal Sinai in questa sidra vengono a ricordarci. “La terra e la sua pienezza appartengono solo a Dio“.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer