Last night I took part in a joyful Seder to celebrate the midwinter Full Moon – the festival Jews call Tu B’Shvat. The meal of this Seder celebrates the offspring of trees – fruits and nuts. It is the only sacred meal that requires the death of no living being – not even a carrot or a radish yanked up from the Earth. It is for one night the food of Eden, or of the Messianic Age.
Long ago, that midwinter Full Moon heralded the earliest flowering of trees in the Land of Israel — the almond tree (called in Hebrew “shakeid, early awakening.”) In that way, it was analogous to the pagan tradition of celebrating the first hints of spring. [For photos pf the almond blossoms, a forest shattered by logging, and a joyful redwood circle, see our attached graphics.]
Indeed, in Celtic pagan/ earth-oriented religious tradition, February 1 was /is the cross-quarter festival of Imbolc. It represents the first stirrings of spring, often celebrating the lactation of ewes, presaging the birth of lambs.
In an analogous way, Tu B’shvat comes four weeks before the next Full Moon, when we laugh our way into the hilarious spring-fever festival of Purim, and eight weeks before the next Full Moon, the lamb-barley-liberation festival of Pesach/Passover.
The ancient Rabbis named this day of flowering almonds as the day for counting how much to tithe from the last year’s fruit – that is, when wealthy tree-keepers were required to give a tenth of their fruit to feed the poor who had no trees. In this way the Rabbis turned a moment of earthy celebration into a commitment to social justice. With the destruction of the Temple and its tithing, with the loss of the trees of biblical peoplehood, even that aspect of Tu B’Shvat vanished.
Similarly, the Rabbis turned the dark-of-the-year Festival of Light into a memory of either Maccabeean victory or a Temple miracle. They turned Shavuot from a celebration of the spring wheat harvest into a memory of Revelation at Sinai.
Indeed, bereft of a land to revel in and of the political power to shape a land policy, the Rabbis turned their attention from God-offerings of food from the land to God-offerings of words of prayer and Torah. Away from making sure the land could rest each seventh year to shaping a decent Jewish community and social justice.
The earthiness of Jewish festivals was still being ignored by official Judaism when my book Seasons of Our Joy was published in 1982, honoring the earthy roots of all our festivals. The first review in a Jewish magazine condemned it as a pagan distortion of Judaism. It was the folk wisdom, yearning for connections to the Earth, that made Seasons into a classic.
One generation later, even the glacial flow of social change in Established Jewish circles has come to celebrate, not denigrate, this surviving sign of the spirituality of a once-indigenous people. Almost certainly, this change is connected with the growing sense of an urgent and enormous crisis in the relationship between adam and adamah – human earthlings and our Mother Earth.
The change has not yet gone far enough. Those same circles still have not lifted into full consciousness the danger that the climate crisis poses to human life as well as other-than-human life-forms. It is still hard for them to take the healing of our deeply wounded Earth as their highest priority. Bringing about that change should be high on the agenda of every Jew and every Eco-Jewish group. For The Shalom Center, it is.
Meanwhile, about 400 years ago, Jewish mystics revived Tu B’Shvat by making biological trees into a metaphor for the spiritual Tree of Life in which all life on Earth is interwoven into ONE. Now that this Tree of Life is in mortal danger, what the Kabbalists did offers us a path toward making the day into a time of commitment to heal this wounded Tree.
Not just today: the eight weeks from now till Passover, and of course beyond.
Why and how are we facing this danger?
Trees have a lot to do with it. The climate crisis arises out of a brutal attack on the interbreathing of Oxygen and CO2 between vegetation – especially trees – and animals. That interchange has for millions of years kept Earth’s climate in a balance hospitable to the evolution of the human species and human history.
♣ The interchange has been deeply damaged in the last 200 years, and especially the last 50, in two ways: Deforestation of huge parts of earth, diminishing the biological production of Oxygen; [See attached photo of shattered forest.]
♣ And the huge increase in the production of CO2 by one animal – Homo not-so-sapiens – through the burning of fossil fuels.
The worsening imbalance is what is forcing the Earth into global scorching and the climate crisis.
The mystics who recreated Tu B’Shvat created its four-course, four-cups Seder as a midrashic riff on the Seder of Passover. If Passover is about facing, defeating, and dissolving the deadly power of Pharaoh, Tu B’Shvat is about creating the alternative, a miniature Beloved Community devoted to life.
Think of it this way: If we intend to Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet, we need to take seriously where we are moving our money to, as well as where we are moving it from.
Tu B’Shvat and its life-filled Seder is a beckoning to start thinking about a new society. Eight weeks from now, we will confront the truth that we cannot actually move into the Beloved Community — the joy of Shabbat, the abundance of manna, the new eco-social community of Sinai, the year-long restfulness of Shmita, the Promised Land, the grownup Garden of the Song of Songs — until we have dissolved into the Sea of Rebirth the top-down tyranny of Pharaoh.
Now is the time to imagine — not alone, but consulting with each other. To plan:
- Neighborhoods, cities, states, an entire nation committed to massive tree-planting;
- Neighborhood coops to produce solar energy like the successful food coops we already know;
- Congregations that insist on buying their electric power from eco-kosher sources like wind and sun rather than from burning coal, and urge their congregants to do the same.
And we need to start imagining and planning spiritually rooted public action of many sorts – election campaigns, lobbying, moving our money from deadly to life-giving uses, marches, vigils, civil resistance, risking arrest. All the ways we could be resisting the corporate Pharaohs and Caesars that insist on uprooting great forests and burning fossil fuels.
But on this Tu B’Shvat, few and far between are the communities ready to take action as serious as what the Redwood Rabbis and The Shalom Center did in 1997.
Yet fuller involvement of the US religious communities in the climate struggle is as crucial to making transformation happen as their/ our involvement in the struggle against racism was 50 years ago
Tu B’Shvat is eight weeks from Passover and from the onset of Holy Week in Christian life. As we approach Palm Sunday & Passover, that time is when most US religious communities are most focused on our religious teachings & practices and most responsive to religious action. It therefore invites the strongest possible expression of religious concern, symbolism, tradition for preventing climate disaster
What is more, the power of this oncoming season comes from its content: For both Judaism and Christianity, it is about resistance to top-down, arrogant, pyramidal Power—Pharaoh and Caesar — that turns human beings into slaves and brings Plagues upon the Earth.
Pyramid or Globe? Pyramid or Tree? Top-down arrogance or the loving circles of life intertwined?
[See attached photo of joyful circling round a redwood.]
If we lift the Palm Branches of life, the Matzah of urgency, the Globe of Earth’s community — we are challenging the Carbon Pharaohs. We must raise the issue of power — “the issue behind the issues” — in ways that draw on the Jewish & Christian wisdom about confronting top-down power — and thus to encourage religious communities to keep addressing that question.
The Shalom Center is raising those issues, organizing toward events that will uproot the Pharaohs and Caesars of today and plant the seeds of new community. To do this we need your help. Please click on the Donate button to your left.