Ancient Jewish Income Tax Day becomes the Birthday of the Trees –-- and the First Birthday for a leading sustainable synagogue
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Victoria Finlay *
This year, the Jewish celebration of "Tu B'Shvat," the “re-birthday of the trees,” falls from the evening of Sunday February 8 to Monday February 9. In Illinois, the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston will be celebrating both the re-birthday of the trees, and the first birthday of the sustainable re-construction of their own synagogue.
Indeed, The Shalom Center will be presenting its third annual Green Menorah Award to JRC. (The previous awards went to Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in NYC and Temple Emmanuel outside Washington DC.)
Led by Rabbi Brant Rosen, JRC has built an entirely new, deeply green, building for the congregation. So green it is that JRC’s new building has been awarded LEED Certification at the Platinum Level by the US Green Building Council (USGBC) – the highest level of certification for green architecture. JRC is now the very first house of worship in the world to receive this designation.
In 1998, JRC realized its building needed drastic repairs, and after an in-depth investigation of options it was realized that the most appropriate solution was to tear it down and rebuild.
The $10 million dollar building includes 96 percent of the old building, recycled or reclaimed.
• Insulation is thick, and contains fiberglass recycled from glass jars
• The outside siding is cypress reclaimed from barns in upstate New York.
• When it was realized that eighteen caissons, or underground pillars were needed, and that this is a number than in Hebrew is written with the words that spell “life”, the religious school voted on the 18 attributes defining Judaism at JRC, and these were written on pieces of paper deposited into the concrete
• The roof has a white reflective surface to decrease the airconditioning load
• The gardens are planted with native and draft-tolerant (and beautiful) plant species
• The parking lot is lit by photo-voltaic lights
For more details, a virtual tour – and for many inspiring ideas for your own buildings, - please go to –
Is this notion of Tu B'Shvat as an eco-Jewish holy day just an invention of our generation? Not at all. It began that way, as a celebration of the earth and of caring for the poor.
Wouldn't it seem strange if you heard that mystics had transformed April 15, Income Tax Day, into a festival for celebration of God's reemergence? Yet that is what the Kabbalists of Safed did in the sixteenth century when they recreated Tu B'Shvat.
Tu B'Shvat, the full moon of mid-winter, had been important only in Holy Temple days, in the calendar of tithing. It was the end of the "fiscal year" for trees. Fruit that appeared before that date was taxed for the previous year; fruit that appeared later, for the following year. The Talmud called this legal date the "New Year for Trees."
But the Kabbalists saw it as the New Year for the Tree of Life itself - for God's Own Self, for the Tree Whose roots are in Heaven and Whose fruit is the world itself and all God's creatures.
To honor the reawakening of trees and of that Tree in deep mid-winter, they created a mystical Seder that honors the Four Worlds of Acting, Relating, Knowing, and Being.
These Four Worlds were enacted with four cups of wine or grape juice and four courses of nuts and fruit. The fruit moved from less permeable to more permeable.
1. To represent Acting, those fruits with tough shells and soft, edible insides e.g. walnuts were chosen.
2. For Relating, fruits with soft outsides and hard insides e.g. peaches were chosen.
3. For Knowing, those that are soft and edible all the way through e.g. figs were chosen.
4. And to represent Being, fruits are chosen that are so "permeable" they are not tangible at all and exist only on the plane of Spirit.
The symbolic system of this Seder held still deeper riches: echoes of generation and regeneration in the worlds of plants and animals. Nuts and fruit, the rebirthing aspects of a plant's life-cycle, are the only foods that require no death, not even the death of a plant. Our living trees send forth their fruit and seeds in such profusion that they overflow beyond the needs of the next generation. ..
The Kabbalists of Safed saw that God's shefa, or abundance, would keep flowing only if a portion of it were returned as rent to God, the Owner of all land and all abundance. And who were God's rent collectors? The poor and the landless, including those priestly celebrants and teachers who owned no piece of earth and whose earthly task was to teach and celebrate. These mystics saw a deep significance in giving. They said that to eat without blessing the Tree was robbery; to eat without feeding others was even worse! Because without blessing and sharing, the flow of abundance would choke and stop.
Today the trees of the world are in danger; the poor of the world are in need; the teachers and celebrants of the world are at risk. So Tu B'Shvat must continue to be a time for teachers and celebrants to celebrate through the life-giving sacred meal of rebirth for the Tree of Life, God's Own Self."
So Tu B’Shvat must continue to be a time for teachers and celebrants – to celebrate through the life-giving sacred meal of rebirth for the Tree of Life, God's Own Self. It must also become a time for action to feed the endangered earth and the endangered poor. Both are in greatest danger from the poisonous overload of carbon dioxide and methane that human societies are pouring into God’s wind, the ruach ha’olam, and from the destruction of trees that soak up the CO2.
Already the spreading desertification and resulting genocidal hyperviolence in Africa; the unprecedented drought in the state of Georgia; the melting of polar ice and of the Himalayan snows that give water to moré than a billion human beings; the diminishment of the Great Lakes so they can no longer bear the larger vessels that bring food to the world; the Katrina hurricane -- all are caused in part by the global climate crisis, global scorching. Earth, air, water, fire -- all are in danger.
So today Tu B’Shvat must once again change as it has in the past, becoming a day to act — to demand new laws and interrupt old destructions.
Today the Seder might include time to write a letter to the local papers, calling on Congress to pass strong laws capping the emission of C02, to tax fuels according to the amount of carbon each fuel releases into the atmosphere (coal and oil, very high; solar and wind energy, very low), and to end subsidies for coal and oil while greatly increasing them for solar and wind research. (A sample letter is below.)
Give! Share! Act! Or the flow of abundance will choke on the friction of its own outpouring, and God’s Own Self will choke on our refusal of compassion.
Below is a sample letter, which you can ask Tu B'Shvat seder guests to send to local Jewish or general newspapers and to your members of Congress. Members of other religious and spiritual communities can modify the letter to reflect their concerns. And please send us a copy at Office@theshalomcenter.org
You yourself can also send it to your Senators and Congressmember NOW by clicking to --
http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/602/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=26476 And please send us a copy at Office@theshalomcenter.org
Tonight we celebrate the traditional Jewish midwinter festival of rebirth of trees and the earth. So I am especially aware of the impact of our global climate crisis on God's creation -- the web of life that includes, as the Bible says, the human race and all the living, breathing beings of our world.
I hope you will move quickly to cap and reduce CO2 emissions in order to protect our food supply, water supply, coastlines, and human health as well as many other species in the sacred web of life, from the ravages of climate crisis and global scorching,
Global scorching is already affecting the poor in America and around the world most quickly and deeply, just as Hurricane Katrina most deeply affected the poor of New Orleans. I am especially concerned that Congress address issues of equity and justice as part of addressing the climate crisis.
1. We must move swiftly to reduce CO2 emissions. The goal must be reductions by 20 percent of 2005 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.
2. Please include a carbon tax along with cap-and-trade as ways of reducing CO2 emissions, devoting its proceeds to vouchers for low and middle-income people to use public transportation.
3. Please work to include in the new Economic Recovery package appropriations to create a new passenger rail system in high-population parts of the country, matching in energy efficiency, speed, comfort, frequency, and convenience the European rail system — and high-efficiency freight trains throughout America.
4. Please include major grass-roots aid to developing countries to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and to meet the needs of communities endangered by drought, floods, or newly spreading diseases.
Most policy changes can proceed by increments without permanent damage. But to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis, we need to do ENOUGH and do it quickly, not little by little.
May the work you do to heal the earth and human civilization from this danger, fill you with a sense that you have well met your responsibilities.
* Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and the author of many books on jewish practice, including Down-to-Earth Judaism and three others on the history and practice of eco-Judaism. Finlay is Communications Director of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), which is especially active in the United Kingdom.