In 1969, UNESCO peace activist John McConnell proposed the creation of the first holiday to honor the Earth, and for more than 50 years, “Earth Day” has been celebrated in 193 countries. But like most cultural practices “invented” in modern times, this holiday actually has religious roots almost 2,000 years old.
Long before Earth Day, Jews observed Tu B’Shvat (literally meaning “the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat”), which falls this year on the eve of January 16. In the Mishnah, a sacred Jewish text from the third century, it is placed on the level of importance as high as Rosh HaShana, is called one of the “four new years,” and is called “The New Year of the Trees.” The first ecological holiday in Western civilization, this holiday is observed by planting trees, considering the spiritual lessons we learn from nature and remembering our roles as stewards of God’s great gift of the earth.
The Talmud teaches a story of Honi, a mystic who realizes the importance of each of us planting trees even though we may not live long enough to see their fruits (Ta’anit 23a). Our ancestors were stewards and planted trees, which we now benefit from, and we have the same responsibility to our descendants. Although we should always be conscious of the environment, on Tu B’Shvat, we make a special effort to tend God’s garden and plant trees, who then bless us with oxygen, fruits and so much more.
Farmers are often very spiritual, as they daily deal with nature and deeply appreciate God’s gifts of not only plants but the required sun and rain needed for them to thrive. But living in the city, where fruit is bought at a market, and we can turn on a faucet for water as opposed to waiting for rain, it is all too easy to lose track of God’s presence in the world, as demonstrated in nature. Tu B’Shvat allows us the opportunity to remember the source of all our blessings and to take up our responsibility as caretakers of this world.
The mystics of the Middle Ages developed an entire Seder for Tu B’shvat, similar to the ritualized meal of the Passover celebration. Using the image of a tree as the model for the universe — in which we are all connected to the roots of God by different branches — we use the gifts of the trees to help deepen our understanding of all of life.
Using a combination of fruits, four different glasses of wine, songs, teachings and stories, the Tu B’shvat Seder becomes a magical evening of self-reflection and awareness that reminds each participant of the magnificence of God as seen in the trees themselves.
The realization from the evening is not only increased awareness, but an awakening of gratitude for all of nature’s gifts and a deepened ability to see the beauty of God’s creation. Unlike the secular nature of Earth Day, Tu B’Shvat reminds us of the spirituality that is hidden in all of life … waiting to be found by each of us.
Rebbe Nachman, one of the great sages of the 18th century, taught that even before saying morning prayers, one should go out and listen to the songs of nature. There is an ancient mystical text called Perek Shirah that describes in detail how we can see God’s presence in all of nature: bushes and trees, mountains and streams and every type of animal. For thousands of years, our sages knew what we all too often forget: the magnificence of God is on display in every moment if we just take the time to notice.
So rather than waiting for Earth Day in April to be “environmentally conscious,” let us all take some time and celebrate Tu B’Shvat by using nature to be more aware of Divinity. Plant a tree, or just sit under one meditating upon its grandeur. Pause and contemplate the fruit you eat rather than just devouring it. Notice how after the recent rains, the plants are all starting to grow and blossom as we approach spring. Look deeper, past the greenery to the ultimate gardener who has blessed all of us with so much … and deepen your awareness and relationship with Him.
We are all tasked with being spiritual gardeners. May we all take that job joyously, tend the holy garden of this planet, and see God’s presence in every moment of our lives.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village (www.NerSimcha.org) and the author of Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together.