Tell me, have you walked among the trees recently? I will never forget the quality of the silence in the redwood forest we used to visit when we lived in Northern California. It was similar to the silence of a sanctuary or cathedral. Bone deep, sacred. Just even thinking of walking on the pathway in that forest, I notice that I take a deep breath.
Which is interesting, in and of itself, because the truth is that we literally DO breathe in the energy that trees release in the form of oxygen that we need to live.
And just as amazing is that the trees themselves breathe. They inhale the carbon dioxide that we exhale.
The psalmist somehow knew this, and this awesome sentiment is given a place in our morning prayers: Every living thing breathes and praises God: Kol Haneshema t’halal Yah.
In the Hebrew month of Shevat (usually corresponding to February) the rabbis of the Mishnah noticed that the trees begin to bud and the sap begins to flow. They created a holiday called Tu B’Shevat which we celebrate on the 15th day of Shevat. Originally it was a reminder of setting aside tithes for the poor from the corners of the fields. They called this holiday, “The New Year of Trees.”
In the soulful explosion of Jewish mysticism in Safed in the middle ages, Tu B’Shevat took on a more spiritual tone. Tu B’Shevat seders were created, honoring not only trees and fields, but all the gifts of nature that begin to wake up from their winter sleep in early spring.
To those of us who live outside the land of Israel in which this holiday originated, Tu B’Shevat has become an occasion to celebrate our connection with trees and seeds and herbs and all things that grow. On this day, we raise our consciousness about the environmental dangers we face right now.
As Jews, it’s central to our mission that we need to protect the planet. In the Garden of Eden, “God took Adam around to see the trees of the Garden of Eden, which included the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, and God said to Adam, ‘Behold My work. All this I create for you. Take care you do not destroy it, for if you do, there is no one left to repair it.’”
Some of the most ardent environmentalists I know are people who have deep personal relationships with trees and nature. People who hike or walk or ski or run amongst the trees fall in love. When we love something, we fight hard to protect it.
The best way to create a relationship is to slow down, notice, and allow the wonder of what is before you to impact you.
A Mindful Way to Celebrate Tu B’Shevat:
Simply take a walk where you live – either by yourself or with a friend or best of all – a child. Quiet your speech so your other senses can awaken. If you can’t get to a forest preserve, walk around your block, or even your own yard. It’s not a walk to get anywhere – it’s a walk with the intention to pay attention. Especially notice the trees. They might be snow covered or devoid of leaves – accept them as they are.
Find one tree that attracts you.
Stand close up and observe the branches. Can you see any buds forming? Are there leaves hanging on from last year’s season, fluttering in the wind? Look closely at the bark on the tree – its color and texture. Look as if it’s the first time you’ve seen it. Notice the shape of the tree’s canopy. Are there any nests? Check out the roots – are they visible? Breaking up a sidewalk? Covering the ground by stretching out wide?
And then – take some deep breaths, conscious of the fact that you and the tree you face are exchanging life. Experience what that feels like.
Now that you have a relationship with this tree, make sure you come back in a few weeks and visit your new friend. Again, notice the branches, the canopy, the bark, the buds or the leaves.
Martin Buber speaks of the shift in our relationship to a tree from an “it” to a “thou.” Surely this is what is needed in order to save the planet. When we love, we enter into an “I-Thou” relationship – we see the connections between us and how we are in fact, one breathing entity.
I can contemplate a tree. I can accept it as a picture . . . I can feel it as a movement . . . I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance . . . I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I can recognize it only as an expression of law . . . I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and externalize it. Throughout all of this the tree, the tree remains my object and has its time span, its kind and condition. But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree, I am drawn into the relation and the tree ceases to be an It.
This Tu B’Shevat, say Happy Birthday to a tree.
Rabbi Jill Zimmerman is a rabbi in Los Angeles, focusing her rabbinate on mindfulness through the lens of Judaism and can be reached at RabbiJillZ@gmail.com
As quoted by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, Rabbi, Valley Beth Shalom, http://www.jewishworldwatch.org/aboutjww2/sermon.html
 Martin Buber, I and Thou, Martino Publishing; 2010, pp. 57-58