(originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, Jan. 22, 2010)
One day, as [Honi the Circle-Maker] was walking on the road, he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, “How long will it take this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied, “Seventy years.” He asked, “Are you quite sure you will live another seventy years to eat its fruit?” The man replied, “I myself found fully grown carob trees in the world; as my forebears planted for me, so am I planting for my children.”
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a)
A meqom tefillah, a place of prayer, must always have a window; we should never be swept away with kavvanah that we forget the world beyond the synagogue. From our main sanctuary at Temple Israel, you cannot see through the windows due to the curtains. But in our small chapel, where we hold services at least twice every day, we have views not only of the courtyard and parking lot, but a number of beautiful trees as well, and I often find myself staring out the window during prayerful moments.
The institution of Tu Bishvat is neither particularly old, in Jewish terms, nor extensively detailed. It is actually so obscure that it does not even merit an entry in the standard Conservative work of halakhah, Rabbi Isaac Klein's "A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice." I suppose that is because the day on which all trees turn a year older has no practical import, halakhically speaking or otherwise, for the vast majority of today's Jews.
And yet, as our attention turns increasingly to the effects of global warming, and our possible responses to a now well-documented phenomenon, one must agree that it is striking that we have a day in the Jewish calendar dedicated to remembering the trees. Let's face it: the trees of this world have it rough. Proud and beautiful, trees are essential to the human economy, and as such are used and abused for our own purposes. Yes, we make sure that there are carefully-pruned trees in our yards and parks and nature preserves, but we also manipulate vast numbers of trees for lumber, paper products, pharmaceuticals, furniture, holiday observances, and of course for building new subdivisions and apartment buildings and parking lots on virgin land.
A tree is the product of an enormous investment of energy, a naturally-honed chemical machine that accomplishes truly marvelous things. That trees turn carbon dioxide into oxygen (and tree food) is old news; that the proper symbiosis of trees and oxygen-breathing animals prevents the accumulation of carbon dioxide and hence the heat of the sun in our atmosphere is nothing short of miraculous.
And so, in honor of Tu Bishvat, perhaps the next time your eyes pass over the Modim Anahnu Lakh paragraph in the Amidah (it's in every Amidah, morning, afternoon, and evening of every day), and you spot the line, "ve-al nisekha shebekhol yom imanu," "for Your miracles that daily attend us," think about the trees. Although Judaism provides only one day a year to remember them, the trees should always be numbered among the assortment of wonders that God has provided us. Come join us in the chapel, morning and evening every day, to be reminded of their comforting presence as we pray together.