Tu Bishvat - Growing with Trees

As Tu Bishvat is coming, this is a collection of short texts followed by guiding questions in order to discuss what trees can teach us about ourselves, humans, grassroots communities, sustainable leadership, God, Torah and learning. Hag sameah!

אַרְבָּעָה רָאשֵׁי שָׁנִים הֵם. בְּאֶחָד בְּנִיסָן רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לַמְּלָכִים וְלָרְגָלִים. בְּאֶחָד בֶּאֱלוּל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לְמַעְשַׂר בְּהֵמָה. רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר וְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמְרִים, בְּאֶחָד בְּתִשְׁרֵי. בְּאֶחָד בְּתִשְׁרֵי רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לַשָּׁנִים וְלַשְּׁמִטִּין וְלַיּוֹבְלוֹת, לַנְּטִיעָה וְלַיְרָקוֹת. בְּאֶחָד בִּשְׁבָט, רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לָאִילָן, כְּדִבְרֵי בֵית שַׁמַּאי. בֵּית הִלֵּל אוֹמְרִים, בַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בּוֹ:
There are four new years:The first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of beasts. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishri. The first of Tishri is the new year for years, for shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithe of] vegetables. The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the words of Bet Shammai. Bet Hillel says: on the fifteenth of that month.

Tu Bishvat is also called the new year of trees in Jewish tradition.

  • How much do you feel that your personal calendar is impacted by natural cycles?

It's actually only one in four new years throughout the 12 months-cycle.

  • Do you connect with the idea of multiple renewal opportunities?
  • What other new years would you add?
כִּֽי־תָצ֣וּר אֶל־עִיר֩ יָמִ֨ים רַבִּ֜ים לְֽהִלָּחֵ֧ם עָלֶ֣יהָ לְתָפְשָׂ֗הּ לֹֽא־תַשְׁחִ֤ית אֶת־עֵצָהּ֙ לִנְדֹּ֤חַ עָלָיו֙ גַּרְזֶ֔ן כִּ֚י מִמֶּ֣נּוּ תֹאכֵ֔ל וְאֹת֖וֹ לֹ֣א תִכְרֹ֑ת כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לָבֹ֥א מִפָּנֶ֖יךָ בַּמָּצֽוֹר׃
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?

כי האדם עץ השדה. הֲרֵי כִּי מְשַׁמֵּשׁ בִּלְשׁוֹן דִּלְמָא

כי האדם עץ השדה FOR IS THE TREE OF THE FIELD A MAN [THAT IT SHOULD BE BESIEGED BY THEE]? — כי has here the meaning of “possibly”, “perhaps”

1. Humans and the human condition

This biblical text and its comment see something in humans, humanity and/or human nature that is akin to a tree.

  • Both are born, live, grow, die
  • Both need external resources to nurture their internal resources
  • What are other concrete similarities you can think of?
  • What would your community/society look like if humans behaved more like trees?
כִּי דַּע, כִּי כָל רוֹעֶה וְרוֹעֶה יֵשׁ לוֹ נִגּוּן מְיֻחָד לְפִי הָעֲשָׂבִים וּלְפִי הַמָּקוֹם שֶׁהוּא רוֹעֶה שָׁם, כִּי כָל בְּהֵמָה וּבְהֵמָה יֵשׁ לָהּ עֵשֶׂב מְיֻחָד, שֶׁהִיא צְרִיכָה לְאָכְלוֹ. גַּם אֵינוֹ רוֹעֶה תָּמִיד בְּמָקוֹם אֶחָד. וּלְפִי הָעֲשָׂבִים וְהַמָּקוֹם שֶׁרוֹעֶה שָׁם, כֵּן יֵשׁ לוֹ נִגּוּן. כִּי כָל עֵשֶׂב וָעֵשֶׂב יֵשׁ לוֹ שִׁירָה שֶׁאוֹמֵר, שֶׁזֶּה בְּחִינַת פֶּרֶק שִׁירָה, וּמִשִּׁירַת הָעֲשָׂבִים נַעֲשֶׂה נִגּוּן שֶׁל הָרוֹעֶה.

For know! each and every shepherd has his own special melody, according to the grasses and specific location where he is grazing. This is because each and every animal has a specific grass which it needs to eat. He also does not always pasture in the same place. Thus, his melody is dictated by the grasses and place he pastures. For each and every grass has a song which it sings. This is the concept of Perek Shirah. And from the grass’s song, the shepherd’s melody is created.

2. Grassroots communities

This hassidic text (and subsequent song) is one of the ways I like best to understand the notion of grassroots.

  • Both are a combination of collective and radical uniqueness
  • The individual needs to be nurtured to maintain collective sanity
  • Each unique member (grass/individual) has specific needs
  • What other similarities do you see between community and community building and grass?

וְלָמָּה הֶרְאָה לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמשֶׁה בָּעִנְיָן הַזֶּה, לְפִי שֶׁהָיָה מְחַשֵּׁב בְּלִבּוֹ וְאוֹמֵר, שֶׁמָּא יִהְיוּ הַמִּצְרִיִּים מְכַלִּין אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְפִיכָךְ הֶרְאָהוּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֵשׁ בּוֹעֶרֶת וְאֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל, אָמַר לוֹ כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהַסְּנֶה בּוֹעֵר בָּאֵשׁ וְאֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל, כָּךְ הַמִּצְרִיִּים אֵינָן יְכוֹלִין לְכַלּוֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.

And why did the Holy One, Blessed be He reveal Himself to Moses in this way? Because he [Moses] thought in his heart, saying, Maybe the Egyptians will destroy Israel. Therefore the Holy One, Blessed be He revealed Himself in a thorn-bush that was burning but not consumed. He said to him, just as the thorn-bush is burning but is not consumed, so too the Egyptians will not be able to destroy Israel.

3. Leadership

This rabbinic commentary derives from the story of the burning bush a lesson on sustainability, hope and/or leadership. Some trees can burn without being consumed.

  • As a leader, how do you know when you're switching from burning to consuming?

ד"א למה מתוך הסנה ר' אלעזר בן ערך אומר מפני מה נגלה הקב"ה משמי מרום והיה מדבר עם משה מתוך הסנה לפי שיכול המקום שידבר מראש הרים ומראש הגבעות מגבהי עולם ומארזי לבנון אלא השפיל עצמו ודבר מתוך הסנה ועליו אמר שלמה (משלי כ"ט כ"ג) ושפל רוח יתמוך כבוד: אי אתה מוצא מן האילנות שפל מן הסנה וכן הוא אומר (תהלים קל"ח ו') כי רם ד' ושפל יראה.

R. Eliezer ben Arakh said: Why did the Holy One Blessed be He reveal Himself from on high and speak to Moses from out of the bush? Surely he should have spoken to him from the mountain peaks and the lofty places of the world and from the cedars of Lebanon? But he lowered himself and spoke from out of the bush. Of Him, Solomon said "He that is of a lowly spirit shall attain to honor" (Prov. 29, 23). You can find nothing more humble among the trees than the bush. It is likewise said: "For though the Lord be high, yet regards he the lowly" (Psalms 138, 6).

4. God

Of all trees, this text identifies God to a bush.

  • What are the features of a bush-like God?
עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃ (פ)
She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her is happy.

5. Torah & Learning

This text identifies Torah - and by extension learning - to a tree.

  • This invites people to tend to it
  • This reflects dynamism and change
  • What else does that teach us about the Torah?

At Moishe House, we've created the Jewish Learning Tree to reflect those ideas of growth, rootedness, diversity, versatility, dynamism, connectedness, etc.

  • Can you think of a Jewish Learning program you'd love to build/join with the help of this Tree?