Tu B’Shvat, the Climate Crisis and the Tree of Light; A Green Menorah Supplement for Your Tu B’Shvat Seder

Prepared by Rabbi Jeff Sultar
Director, Green Menorah Covenant campaign of The Shalom Center
http://www.theshalomcenter.org greenmenorah@theshalomcenter.org 215/ 438-2983

Tu B'Shvat is coming  -- the evening of January 21. It celebrates the rebirthing of trees in the midst of winter, and in the mystical tradition of Kabbalah, also the reawakening of Divine energy  with God seen metaphorically as the Tree of Life, with Its roots in Heaven and Its fruit, ourselves -- the universe.

Below you will find the text of a pamphlet that you can download as a supplement for you to use in holding a Tu B'Shvat Seder  or giving a sermon on the Birthday of the Trees. Cut, paste, and click here for a PDF version that you can download and print as a four-page pamphlet:


Ancient rabbis taught that Tu B'Shvat represented the fiscal New Year for trees, in regard to tithing their fruit.   Kabbalists in 16th century Tzfat in northern Israel modeled a sacred meal for that day on the Passover seder, celebrating in their meal God's flow of natural abundance through four courses of wine and fruit.

Today that flow is most threatened by the global climate crisis. The comments in our supplement are keyed for your use in each of the four Seder courses, to address the climate crisis in thought and action. 

The Tree imagery reminds us that the Temple Menorah was patterned after a tree, with branches, leaves and almond blossoms (Ex. 25:31-40, 37:17-24). The original menorah was a Tree of Light -- truly a green menorah. Our Green Menorah Covenant campaign is a year-round effort, not for Hanukkah only.

Please contact us to learn more about  becoming a partner in the Green Menorah Covenant, bringing us to speak, and supporting our work.

For an anthology of Jewish thought and practice on trees and Tu B'Shvat  from the earliest biblical days till now, see Trees, Earth, & Torah, edited by Ari Elon, Rabbi Naomi Mara  Hyman, and  Rabbi Arthur Waskow  (Jewish Publication Society, 1999).  

The Green Menorah work has been  generously supported by the Arnow family foundations, Rita Poretsky Foundation, ALEPH Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the New World Foundation,  Hazon, & Shalom Center members.

For an anthology of Jewish thought and practice on trees and Tu B'Shvat from the earliest biblical days till now, see Trees, Earth, & Torah, edited by Ari Elon, Rabbi Naomi Mara Hyman, and Rabbi Arthur Waskow (Jewish Publication Society, 1999).

The Green Menorah work has been generously supported by the Arnow family foundations, Rita Poretsky Foundation, ALEPH Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the New World Foundation, Hazon, & Shalom Center members.

First Fruit and First Cup

Spiritual Level: Assiyah (Doing, Action); Earth; Fruit with Hard Outer Layer, Soft Inner; Wine/Grape Juice: Entirely white ;Season: Winter

During this actual winter that we’re in, and during spiritual seasons of our life that feel like winter, life seems to move slower, to hibernate, and sometimes even seems dead. So too with hope. But the seed of life, of hope, burns with a warm glow,, even when hidden.

We eat fruit that is hard on the outside and soft on the inside. We need to break through the hard outer shell of our inertia; we need to overcome our resistance; we need to believe in the power of our action.

There is a lesson hinted at by Tu BeShvat, for “a person is like a tree of the field.” When the wheel of fortune has turned for someone and they are down, when they see no way to keep their head above water; they have lost all hope and are despairing – then they should ponder a tree in winter. Its leaves have fallen, its moisture has dried up, it is almost a dead stump in the ground. Then suddenly, it begins to revive and to draw moisture from the earth. Slowly it blossoms, then brings forth fruits. People should learn from this not to despair, but to take hope and have courage, for they too are like a tree.” Rabbi Yisrael of Chortkov in Ginzei Yisrael (Quoted in Yitzhak Buxbaum, A Person is Like a Tree: A Sourcebook for Tu BeShvat, p. 60)

This section of the seder points us to an earthbound aspect of the global climate crisis: Trees and plants are a critical element in maintaining climate balance. They breathe in carbon dioxide (CO2), removing it from the air and storing it. When trees and other vegetation are burned, not only do we lose the trees removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, but also all of the carbon stored in their leaves, wood, roots and soils is released. Deforestation and land use change contributes approximately 20-25% of the CO2 emissions that cause climate change. One source of hope is that preventing deforestation is one of the most (relatively) inexpensive strategies for tackling climate change.

First Cup: Each cup of wine or grape juice gives us the opportunity to dedicate ourselves to action. It reminds us that we can’t simply whine about a problem, but must actually do something about it.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai used to say: If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone should say to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go welcome the Messiah. (Avot d’Rabbi Natan)

Rabbi Yohanan, on one hand, implores us to show a healthy dose of skepticism whenever anyone claims that the Messiah has arrived. But he also asserts that planting trees is so important that even if the Messiah were to arrive, you should still finish the planting that you’re in the middle of. And how much more so is this true for us in non-messianic times, that we should make sure that nothing interrupts our work of planting trees. And just as Benjamin Franklin observed that “a penny saved is a penny earned,” how much the more so is it critical that we save existing trees that otherwise would have been cut down.

The Holy One said to Israel: Even if you find the land full of all good things, you should not say, “We will sit and not plant… Just as you came and found trees planted by others, you must plant for your children; As you found trees, plant more, even if you are old. (Midrash Tanhuma on Leviticus 19:23)

Actions: Explore options at websites of groups such as Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Forest Stewardship Council and Oxfam, and deforestation sections of carbon offsetting sites such as carbonneutral.com

Second Fruit and Second Cup

Spiritual Level: Yetzirah (Formation); Emotional : Water. Fruit: Soft Outer Layer, Hard Inner
Wine/Grape Juice: Mostly White with a Splash of Red . Season: Spring

Life springs forth once again eternal from its hiding places. Anything seems possible..

For now the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The blossoms have appeared on the land, the time of singing has come; the song of the turtledove is heard in our land. The green figs form on the fig tree, the vines in blossom give off fragrance. Arise, my darling, my fair one, come away! (Song of Songs 2:11-13)

Our fruit is soft on the outside, hard on the inside. After wrestling with the challenges and resistance of winter, we are filled with the heady feeling that we can make a significant difference in the world. Yet once we take our initial bites, we eventually come to other obstacles. In winter, the obstacles were within ourselves; now we come to obstacles within our groups, our institutions, our government. We hunker down for the long haul.

On this day of Tu BeShvat we really do have the whole perfection of the tree’s yearly cycle in potential. It may take time and care to realize that potential…but the potential is here now.

“People are born into toil.” When we undertake a new project, we must also confront the toil, time, and effort it will require. It may well seem overwhelming. In order to produce an orchard, you have to plant seeds. Before you plant seeds, you have to select those of the best quality. Many seeds will have to be sown, in the hope that some will take root in the earth. Before that, the land will have to be cleared and the soil cleared of weeds and stones. Then the field will have to be guarded from wildlife and birds…It is altogether a huge task.

Therefore, as soon as the sap begins to flow in the tree, a person is reminded of all that lies ahead but is also shown the wonderful fruits his labors will bear, if he will carry out faithfully all that is incumbent upon him….Now the decisions are to be made and the order of work established.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, quoted in Yitzhak Buxbaum, A Person is Like a Tree, p. 112-3)

With its focus on the element “water,” this section of the seder points us to the role of water in the global climate crisis. In the past few years we’ve seen glaciers and the polar ice caps melting at a far greater rate than scientists had already feared, which means that sea levels will rise and coastal towns and cities will be displaced. Within a few decades, polar bears will only be found in zoos. And rainfall extremes are only worsening -- both droughts and floods more severe. The global climate crisis does not affect everyone equally, but takes the most from those who already have the least. (Notice what happened in New Orleans.)

Second Cup: As we drink this second cup, we commit ourselves to keeping the ethical dimension of the global climate crisis at the center of conversation and legislation.

Action: Within the first few months of 2008, the Senate is slated to take up the Lieberman-Warner “America’s Climate Security” bill. Write to your Senators in support of this bill in general, while urging strengthening where it does not go far enough, and insisting that concern for environmental justice continue to be included.

Third Fruit and Third Cup

Spiritual Level: Beriyah (Creation) Character: Cerebral
Fruit: Soft Throughout, Completely Edible Element: Air
Wine/Grape Juice: Mostly Red with a Splash of White Season: Summer

In the summer of our spiritual landscape, the fruit of our labors grows and we begin to harvest it. Spring, like new love, now transforms into a more sustainable and dependable form, one that can “go the distance.” We not only see that we are in this for the long haul, but we know that we can, over time, make real progress toward our goals. Hope now flows not simply out of an act of will but also flows out of the evidence of what we’ve already actually achieved.

Third Fruit: We eat fruit that is entirely edible. Internal and external obstacles never really go away, but they are now seen not as dead ends, but as challenges to which can rise. We begin to harvest the fruit of our actions.

The “fruits” are the mitzvot and good deeds that the righteous do in this world. K’tav Sofer, (Quoted in Yitzhak Buxbaum, A Person is Like a Tree, p. 34)

With its focus on the element “air,” this section of the seder points us to the role of air in the global climate crisis. Our atmosphere acts like a greenhouse, like a mirror and a sponge, both reflecting and absorbing radiation. When in proper balance, the reflection and absorption serve to maintain an average global temperature that supports life as we know it. In recent centuries, though, we began to change the balance of elements in the atmosphere. And in recent decades, our impact has become so dramatic that temperatures are now measurably rising, with results that are both predictable and scarily unknown.

Carbon dioxide accounts for 80% of total greenhouse gas emissions. The primary source of CO2 emissions come from burning fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil and coal.

Third Cup: As we drink this third cup, we commit ourselves to reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that we spew into the atmosphere.

Action: Twice during the year we read the same words from the prophet Zechariah, once as the haftarah during Hanukkah and again as the haftarah for Beha’alot’cha:

This is the word of the Divine to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit (b’ruchi) – said the Divine. (Zechariah 4:6)

According to Zechariah, we are supposed to rely upon ruach – often translated as “spirit” but also meaning “wind.” What if this statement refers not only to spiritual matters, but also calls us to literally rely on the actual wind itself as a major source of power.

Most of us don’t need to wait even a moment longer to harness the power of wind and to support further development of this energy source. Many states’ electric utilities already provide to individuals and institutions the option of receiving their electricity from wind, just by signing up and paying an additional monthly fee. Each household that elects to receive its electricity from wind power saves the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions as not driving 20,000 miles a year in a car! A synagogue or business switching to wind power reduces carbon emissions even more than that (one synagogue covered the increased utility cost by having members sponsor one or more days; within a short time they had commitments for more than a year’s worth of days). Few actions that we can take are so easy, so affordable and so immediate in their positive impact. So yes, it costs a little bit more, but given how dramatic the carbon reductions are, what are we waiting for? The connection with Zechariah might seem tongue-in-cheek, but really, what could be more inspired!

This very year, just weeks ago, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency ignored the unanimous recommendation of its staff scientists and lawyers, and forbade the states to adopt rules for carbon-dioxide emissions that would be more earth-healing than those of the Federal government. We could now take 10 minutes to write our own letters to a local newspaper with our views on this question. [Seder planners: Have paper, pens, newspaper addresses, and a copy of a news article on this subject available. See and copy from -- http://www.theshalomcenter.org/node/1333

Fourth Fruit and Fourth Cup

Spiritual Level: Atzilut (Nearness to Divinity) Character: Spiritual
Fruit: None (or dip fruit in chocolate - inspired by Robert Esformes) Element: Fire
Wine/Grape Juice: Completely Red Season: Autumn

In this fourth world beyond all others, we transcend the distinction between “human” and “nature.” The environment is no longer something “out there,” but it is rather something to which we belong, as a unique yet equal partner.

One glorious chain of love, of giving and receiving, unites all living things. All things exist in continuous reciprocal activity – one for All, All for one. None has power, or means, for itself; each receives only in order to give, and gives in order to receive, and finds therein the fulfillment of the purpose of existence…. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters

With its focus on the element “fire,” this section of the seder points us to the rising temperatures that are leading to the global climate crisis. Drier conditions make forests more vulnerable, so it also brings to mind the forest fires that recently ravaged southern California, destroying the very trees we celebrate on this Tu B’Shvat.

Fourth Cup: As we drink this fourth cup, we dedicate ourselves to action that recognizes the inter-connectedness of all life. The global climate crisis has, for once and for all, broken down the distinctions between what is good for some while harming others. We can do nothing in our small corner of the atmosphere without impacting on all others who inhabit our Earth.

[The angel] said to me, “What do you see?” And I answered, “I see a menorah all of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps on it are seven in number, and the lamps above it have seven pipes, and the lamps above it have seven pipes; and next to it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left. …”And what,” I asked him, “are those two olive trees, one on the right and one on the left of the menorah?” And I further asked him, “What are the two tops of the olive trees that feed their golden oil through those two golden tubes?” (Zechariah 4:2-3)

In this astonishing vision, Zechariah sees the Temple menorah as having two olive trees that are actually a part of it, interwoven with the part made by human beings. The trees are directly hooked up to the menorah, feeding olive oil directly into the lamps. The light of the menorah is actually fed and sustained by a continuous, natural, renewable source of oil. The menorah, then, is a combination of nature and of human beings, shaped by both of them into an interwoven whole.

What a powerful image, the menorah becoming the embodiment of the same relationship that we see between human beings and the rest of nature, as symbolized by the Creation story. In Bereishit/Genesis, adam (people) are made out of adamah (ground). This is the same as saying, in English, that earthlings were made out of earth. The shared linguistic root implies a unity, an inter-relatedness of human beings with all the rest of creation. Creation is not “us” vs. “it,” but rather one continuous whole, within which we have a crucial creative and destructive potential, within which we have a relationship and a responsibility.

Action: The element of fire calls to mind the power of the sun. Through solar and other renewable sources, we must decrease our dependence on burning fuels that emit CO2 into the atmosphere. Yet, in the energy bill just signed into law, the mandate that utilities produce a percentage of electricity from renewable sources was dropped entirely! We must demand from our elected officials in the House and Senate that carbon emissions must be reduced through cap-and-trade and/or a carbon tax . And renewable sources of energy – such as solar, wind, geothermal – must be required, and supported through research and development, subsidies and tax incentives. We can, and must, restore the proper relationship between people and earth!


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