Monday, February 3, 2020

The Sap Is Rising – Reflections on Tu BiShvat in a Time of Climate Disruptio

The Sap Is Rising – Reflections on Tu BiShvat in a Time of Climate Disruption
by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
[Note: This was written for and published by Jüdische Allgemeine” in Berlin, Germany’s largest Jewish newspaper.]

In southern New England where I live, the sap is rising in the maple trees.

Everywhere, it's Tu BiShvat, the New Year for the Trees. Here, it's time to set out the taps and begin collecting sap for making maple syrup.

In order to fill my buckets with sap and make maple syrup, I need to know which trees are sugar maple trees. I need to understand something about the trees around me.

It's easy to clump trees altogether. They're all trees, right? Strong trunks rising high, green on top – that's a tree.

But, like people, not all trees are the same. Glancing out my window in winter, the beginning of differentiation is easy--some trees are barren of leaves and others are green with needles. However, closer observation is needed in order to distinguish sugar maples from Norway maples or from beeches or oaks. Looking more closely is needed in order to tap the appropriate trees.

The sages of the Talmud (Berakhot 16a) teach that laborers working in treetops may recite the Shemawithout coming down, but praying the Amidah, which requires greater concentration, is allowed atop only olive or fig trees, and not other kinds of trees. What a puzzle! But it seems that olive and fig trees have many branches close together, making is possible to stand in the tree and focus properly, without worrying about falling. But other kinds of trees, with sparser branching, can't adequately support a person, so the laborers must climb down and pray with their feet on the solid ground.

To properly follow the halachah, tree-climbers need to know in what kind of tree they are standing.

But to fully understand trees, as with people, it takes further discernment to beyond simply being able to identify and name them. What is happening inside the trees? The sap is rising, but what else is happening?

Trees are connected with each other underground; what are they communicating to each other when someone stands on top of them and prays?

As I put in the first taps this spring, I wonder what the trees might be “saying” to each other. Do they communicate warnings to nearby trees about a dangerous tree-tapper in their midst? If so, what exactly is that message?

I don't know. I'm not good at understanding tree language, though when I lean against one, I feel a sense of kinship and connection. I feel a love and caring. And I feel sadness about what is happening to so many trees. Beyond that, I don't know.

My neighbors, afraid their tall pines might fall on their house, recently cut down about 10 trees. Our yard, next door, has numerous similar pines. On stormy windy nights, we often worry about the trees falling on us, too. And then we always say, “No. We can't cut them down.” We feel too connected to them, and that connection overrides our fears.

Watching images of wildfires engulfing California in the summer and Australia this winter, I imagine that the trees must be screaming. Reading about the destruction of the Amazon forests, the burning, the tilling to satisfy our cravings for meat, I can almost hear the screams. So many trees must be crying out in pain and terror, for themselves, their neighbors and kin, and trees all around the world.

But it's Tu BiShvat, time to celebrate trees. Even though it's still winter here in New England. Even in Israel it isn't always full-blown spring when we celebrate Tu BiShvat, New Year for the Trees. Falling as it does in January or February, the trees may or may not be blooming. So why did the ancient sages decide that the best time to mark the end of one year of produce from trees and the beginning of the next year was in late winter? They needed a New Year for the Trees for tax purposes. How did they decide what date marked that distinction between one year and the next?

In the Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 14a) the sages explain that by the beginning of the month of Shvat, most of the year’s rains, necessary for growth and production in the coming season, have already fallen, even though the winter hasn't fully ended. Thus, they determined, any produce harvested after the end of the rains could be considered produce of the next year. So, fruit harvested before Tu Bishvat (the 15th of Shevat) belongs to one tax year, and fruit harvested after the holiday belongs to the year to come.
But Rashi, the medieval commentator, understood the timing of Tu Bishvat to be a bit more complex and less visible. He tells us that it falls at the time when the sap is starting to rise in the trees.

Knowing when the sap begins to rise is a beginning of understanding that which we cannot see. And when a twig is broken, and the sap drips out on a warm sunny day, and then freezes into an icicle with sundown and falling temperatures, we are able to see evidence of that which is hidden, and understand better.

We cannot see the carbon in the atmosphere, drying the air and raising air temperatures, but can see the burning wildfires. We cannot see the greed that fuels clear-cutting trees, but we can see the harsh reality of clear cuts afterward. We cannot literally see the short-sightedness of building more fossil fuel infrastructure, but we can see the superstorms that engulf vulnerable communities as a result of decades of burning fossil fuels. We cannot see the carbon being pulled out of the air by the trees, into their fresh, green leaves and sequestered in the soil, but we can see trees growing and flourishing.

And we cannot see our own fear and denial, but we can see our own lack or limited action personally and in our communities.

The sap rising. On this New Year for the Trees, we are transitioning from last year to this. The trees are coming out of dormancy, and so must we. We must come out of our winter dormancy, our hibernation, our fear, our denial. We must allow our spiritual growth from comfort to fear, to learning, to growth to take place. We must confront the fact that climate change is not just someone else's issue, it is ours, it is everyone's. No one is immune. We must all act.

Tu BiShvat is here. The sap is rising, preparing the trees for new growth. Are we ready for our own new growth? Will we allow it happen?

To begin, let's plant not just one tree this year, but many. Let's plant a tree in Israel and a tree in Palestine. Let's plant a tree in Africa and a tree in South America. Let's help plant a billion trees this year And then, let's allow ourselves to grow with those trees.

Rabbi Katy Allen is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long, and the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Jewish Climate Action Network-MA. She is a board certified chaplain and a former hospital and hospice chaplain and now considers herself an eco-chaplain. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY in 2005 and lives in Wayland, MA with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma'yan Tikvah. 

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