Parshat Beshalach

Friday, January 26th

This coming Wednesday, we will mark Tu Bishvat (the Fifteenth of Shevat), the New Year of Trees, a date that started out in life as a technical demarcation for determining which year a tree’s produce belongs to, for purposes of tithing.  Relatively recently in Jewish history, this date came to be associated with planting trees in the land of Israel.  Early Zionist settlers would plant trees on this date, and to this day many people use Tu Bishvat as an occasion to donate money to the Jewish National Fund to support the planting of trees in Eretz Yisrael.

While the association of Tu Bishvat with the planting of trees may be a relatively recent phenomenon, planting trees has long been seen as a valuable, even a holy activity.  Vayikra Rabbah contains the following Midrash “Rabbi Yochanan ben Shimon began, “‘After the Lord your God shall you walk’ (Deuteronomy 12:5). But is it possible for a man of flesh and blood to walk after the Holy One, blessed be He?!…Rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, from the very beginning of the creation of the world, only occupied Himself only with planting at first. Hence it is written (Genesis 2:8), ‘And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden.’ You also, when you enter into the land, only occupy yourselves with planting at first.”

While the idea of imitatio dei, following God’s ways, could be used to guide us in any number of behaviors, in fact rabbinic literature applies it to a limited number of activities, such as acting with compassion, visiting the sick, and so forth.  It is curious that of all the ways we could imitate God, the relatively mundane task of planting trees should be on the relatively short list of behaviors described as walking in God’s ways.

What’s so special about planting trees? One who plants trees is thinking about the long term.  I can plant a tomato and enjoy its fruit in a matter of months.  I can plant salad greens and harvest them in just a few weeks, but planting a tree, I may not see any benefit from it for years to come.  However, the tree may live to produce fruit for many years and benefit people long after I am gone.  While we cannot think on the time scale of God, who is eternal, when we are thinking and planning for more than just the passing moment, we are doing our best to imitate His focus on the big picture in both time and space.

Moreover, unlike annual crops which almost always involve plowing and tilling the soil, leading to a deterioration of soil quality and structure, and a loss of topsoil, planting trees stabilizes the top soil, increases soil structure and sequesters carbon, providing long term environmental benefits that go beyond the fruit a tree will produce.  Thus by planting trees, we are imitating God, who provides for human needs for sustenance while also seeing to the needs of the non-human world (“who covers the heavens with clouds, provides rain for the earth, makes mountains put forth grass; who gives the beasts their food, to the raven’s brood what they cry for.” Psalm 147:8-9).

Let us seek on Tu Bishvat and all year round, to walk in the ways of Hashem by caring for His creation, and meeting our present material needs in ways that will continue to enable us and all life to thrive on this planet for the long term.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein