Sermon for January 22, 2021
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
Shabbat Shalom! Next Thursday will be the holiday of Tu BiShvat. Therefore, I would like to celebrate with you tonight by teaching you a bit about this holiday.
Let’s start with the name of the holiday. Tu BiShvat literally means the 15th day of the Hebrew calendar month of Shvat. That’s it. The name itself does not give us any indication as to what this holiday celebrates. Originally, Tu BiShvat wasn’t even a holiday or festival. It was an important date for Jewish farmers. In the Torah (Leviticus 19:23-24), the farmers are commanded to “regard the fruit of the tree as forbidden” for the first three years, and offer the fruit of the fourth year to the Kohanim as a gift of thanksgiving for the abundance of the land. This rule begged the question: how were they to mark the birthday of the tree? So the Rabbis deemed the 15th of Shvat as the “birthday of the trees,” no matter when they were originally planted.
When teaching children about Tu BiShvat, I love asking them, “Why are trees significant?” I love it because they never cease to amaze me with their knowledge. When I was a youngster, I probably would have said that trees give us wood to build houses. Today, kindergarten students tell me that we need trees because they make oxygen for us to breathe. Children recognize that trees are so important that we literally cannot live without them.
Judaism has always recognized the significance of trees. So much so that it even states in the Torah that if we are at war and capture another city, we are forbidden from destroying its fruit trees (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). Fruit bearing trees are so important to all living things that we must not needlessly cut them down. We need their oxygen to breathe, their fruit to eat, their shade to keep us cool, their wood for fire and building structures – everything a living being needs to survive. Trees are essential. By the way, have you ever noticed that we refer to the Torah as Eitz Chayim He, the Tree of Life, because the Torah is essential at nourishing and caring for our souls, just as a tree nourishes and cares for our bodies?
Not only is it forbidden for us to cut down trees unnecessarily, but we are also tasked with the responsibility of planting new ones. In the Talmud, we read, “One day, Honi the Cirlce Maker was going along the road. He saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi said to him, ‘How many years does it take to bear fruit?’ The man said to him, ‘Seventy years.’ Honi said to him, ‘Is it clear to you that you will live another seventy years?’ The man said to him, ‘I found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I plant for my children.’ Honi sat down and ate. Drowsiness came to him. He fell asleep. A rock formation rose around him, he became hidden, and he slept for seventy years. When he rose, he saw that man picking fruit from the tree. Honi said to him, ‘Are you the one who planted this tree?’ The man said to him, ‘I am his grandson.’ Honi said to him, ‘Therefore, I must have slept for seventy years,’” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honi_HaMe%27agel).
Yes, this story teaches us the importance of trees for future generations, and why we must plant them. But I would like to flip the switch a little bit. Last Saturday morning, after our Shabbat morning service, I attended a Bar Mitzvah (on Zoom) of a friend and colleague’s son. Instead of chanting the traditional Haftarah, which often comes from the books of the prophets, the Bar Mitzvah chose to talk about someone he considers to be a modern day prophet: Greta Thunberg. He talked about her passion for the environment, and ways we can help. His speech reminded me of Hailey Andersen’s Mitzvah project for her Bat Mitzvah. She introduced a recycling program in her school. These two children, now B’nai Mitzvah, are teaching us, and showing us that we cannot wait for others to plant trees. We must do it ourselves, and we must do it now.
On this Tu BiShvat, let us plant seeds of hope for the future, and let us plant them with our children today.