by Joe Rooks Rapport
Then the LORD God formed Adam, out of the dust of Adamah , and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life; and Adam became a living soul.
And the LORD God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there God placed Adam, the work of God’s hands.
And the LORD God planted, Adamah, the earth with every tree that is pleasing to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And a river flowed forth out of Eden to ever water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became four great streams …
And the LORD God placed Adam in the garden of Eden to guard and to serve it. —Genesis 2:7-10 & 15
Environmentalism runs deep within our Biblical tradition. We learn this from “The Beginning,” from the story of our creation and our connection to the Earth. We are reminded of this each year as we celebrate the Jewish holiday of Tu B’shvat, the New Year of the trees.
I grew up in the Hiawatha Forest, so I needed few reminders of the grandeur of nature. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is commonly called “God’s Country” for its thousands of lakes and waterfalls, and for the forests that surround them all. Living in Louisville has many benefits, but city life has a way of distancing us from our roots in the land and our connection to the earth.
It seemed perfectly natural to me growing up that God’s Garden would be planted with trees: trees of wisdom and trees of life. There is a certain power to a forest filled with trees. There is a stillness and a peace that permeates the woods: tall shafts of trees reaching skyward as eternal reminders of the Eternal One who once planted two trees, which began it all.
And beneath the forest floor lies a mystery all its own. If you have ever traveled to an ancient forest and seen trees that stand hundreds of years after their first seedlings once bloomed, then you know what I mean by the “wisdom” they can teach. Consider, too, this simple question: How many trees now stand in the great Redwood Forest? If you guessed more than a thousand, you were wrong. If you guessed more than a hundred, you were wrong as well.
There is but one tree in the Redwood Forest, and though it seems there are many more, the truth is that after all the centuries have passed, the roots of the forest have joined as one. The trees, the roots, the soil and the earth itself are one great ecosystem bound together in a circle of life. What happens to any part of this circle happens to us all.
That “oneness” is the reason behind the little known Jewish holiday that falls this time of year. Tu B’shvat was celebrated Feb. 13 by Jewish communities throughout the world. We planted trees in the Holy Land and here at home to remind us of our responsibilities to be partners with God in the ongoing process of creation. We gathered for a mystical meal steeped with images from the Kabbalah, renewing the connection between the spiritual and physical facets of our world. We remembered that the God’s wisdom itself is called our Tree of Life as it is written: “It is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy.” (Proverbs 3:18)
Tu B’Shvat sends us back to the roots of our Jewish tradition with a new perspective on their meaning for our lives today. Now, in the coldest of months, we look out at the desolation of winter and imagine a rebirth that is to come. We know there is life beneath the bare surface of this season, a life that will bloom again come spring. In the same way we can sense a connection between the seen and the unseen, the invisible lines of life that connect us all.
May we all hold fast to this wisdom, in preserving our tree of life, our forests and our world.
Joe Rooks Rapport is a senior Rabbi at The Temple, congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom. Contact him at [email protected]