Tu Bishvat: Our Gaian Yom Tov

Tu Bishvat / the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat is The New Year of the Trees.  This year, the holiday begins tonight, Sunday, February 8, 2009.  Here are some thoughts from Reb Zalman, on this holiday, “Our Gaian Yom Tov.”

Tu Bishvat: Our Gaian Yom Tov
by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

I thought that I was glad to see
a beautiful Midrash in a tree…

When we sing the Torah back to the aron hakodesh / the holy ark, the sentence we use in our song talks of a tree:

Etz Hayim Hi / she is a tree of life,
lamahaziqim bah / to those who hold onto her

The “Tree of life” is generally thought to refer to the Torah. However, the context of this sentence from its source in the Book of Proverbs, [Proverbs 3:18], refers it to Hokhmah / Wisdom, Sophia.

If Torah and Hokhmah are synonymous, then it doesn’t matter which of them one has in mind.  But our Sages, of blessed memory, did not see Hokhmah and Torah synonymously:  They saw Hokhmah as something universal, something in common and shared by non-Jew and Jew alike; in contrast, Torah was seen as something only for Jews.  So first, for Tu Bishvat, I want to talk about Etz Hayyim, i.e., Hokhmah.

Hokhmah is the innate wisdom of things.  We think of DNA and RNA as a source for what shape to give to growth; and you can think of Hokhmah as the source for the DNA and RNA themselves.    People speak of it also as the entelechy, (order-giving, non-material, non-spatial, teleological).  And Tu Bishvat is also Hokhmah‘s Yom Tov, the holiday of the all-pervasive Hokhmah, the template of templates of all species, the morphogenetic field about which Rupert Sheldrake has taught us.

The Hokhmah field is also the source of Torah and the source of soul.

Hokhmah issues from the unprecedented void, [Job 28:12] Hahokhmah me’ayin timmatze’, from which we understand that the “daughter,” Hokhmah was founded by the “Father,” the Infinite Eyn Sof.

We are all, together, always, newly-and-afresh issuing from that which is yet to become.  Since we are all, always also a part of Hokhmah’s field of fields, we each have our share in shaping what is yet to become.

She is a Tree of Life.  Imagine the souls as her leaves and the species as her branches.  Imagine her roots as rooted above and she, the Tree, growing downwards toward greater differentiation.

But we can also imagine her in the other direction, as the co-evolution of life growing upward in consciousness.

In either case, like all trees, this one also keeps the record of all growth in her rings.  And there is the mystery of the growing edge (the new growth).

In California, in Muir woods, there is a slice, a cross-section of the trunk of a more than two thousand year old redwood tree, sawed through and through. The legend beside it points to the rings and indicates the age of the rings by showing when great, historic events had occurred.

The rings are not even.  When interpreted by those in the know of such signs, they record a story of fluctuations in climate as the tree grew.  As I stood there and looked, I felt a shift within me.  I will explain:

Whenever one slices an onion or a similar vegetable, one can see the layers which have evolved in the onion over time:  The new growth is always at the center and the older growth at the edges.  With a tree, it’s the opposite

The tree grows from the growing edge. The inner rings date from the youth of the tree and the outer ones are from the recent past. Every year a new ring begins at that growing edge (cambium) which is between the wood of last year’s ring and the outer bark.

As I looked at this cross-section in Muir woods, I stood and mulled it over for a long while. In the back of my mind, a phrase stirred within me, one I had heard from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Menachem Mendel II of blessed memory.  It was a phrase he used when I had met him for the first time, in Marseille France, ten years before he became rebbe.  The phrase was [Deut 20:19], Ki ha’adam etz hassadeh / for a person is like a tree of the field.

An aside:  In recent times, we have come to apply this phrase for an injunction against unnecessary destruction of anything good for the health and well being of the environment or for life on the planet.  Ironically, this same phrase was used to justify just the opposite.  It went something like this:  “When one fights a battle and lays siege to a city, one is not to cut down the trees, for, is the tree the person of one’s enemy?  No.  So let it stand, for one needs to eat of its fruit!”

So the fruit was seen as the tree’s main utility.  And based on this, the Halakhot / laws that derived from the principle of Bal Tash’hit / do not destroy [anything useful], all derived from the interdict whose scope was only with respect to fruit trees.  Other trees could be cut and used for firewood or to build siege instruments and catapults.

In our day, we’ve become aware of other “fruits” of the tree.  For example, we desperately need trees to absorb carbon dioxide and give the essential “fruit” of oxygen. Hence, each ecological contributor needs to be included in the laws derived from Bal Tash’hit.

In the Chassidic tradition too, the sentence was read straight.  It was understood to treat them the same:  The tree is like a human being, and conversely a person is like a tree. This way of reading opened for me a huge territory of Midrash.

At another time, under another tree, I had felt a sense of awe and impact of history when I saw the old, old Oak of Mamre somewhere outside of Hebron. The Russian Orthodox had built a monastery nearby, and the Arab kids sold little bags of acorns from that tree. I brought some acorns back and shared them with friends.

Aside:  I would hope that we could get some more acorns and plant one of the trees in every synagogue yard, and to place a meditation bench below it and there, to do britot and the reception of converts.

And in places where the climate permits [or in greenhouses where it does not,] it would also make sense to plant the Arba Minim / Four Kinds (Species of Succot), the etrog / citron, lulav / date palm, hadas / myrtle and arava / willow so that we can be mindful of them as we tend to them and see them grow the year round before using them at Succot.

Sitting under the ancient tree in Hebron, I affirmed my Brit / covenant with God, for it was under that tree that Abraham, our sire, was circumcised, and there, he made his covenant, and God and angels met him 3 days later at that place, with a promise of new life.

I can well appreciate a Buddhist’s desire to visit the Bo tree in the Deer Garden under which Gautama experienced his awakening.

I suppose that our celebration of Tu Bishvat did not traditionally include rituals under trees because the climate in Eastern Europe did not encourage that, and it gave us a shudder to think of Ashera worship when we were in warmer climates. But now with eco-feminism as part of our consciousness and commitment, we might reconsider our position in regard to this.

So in Muir woods, I felt a shift as I looked at the Sequoia cross-section, at the awesome mystery of the rings and the way in which that tree had been a witness to so much history.

Mt. Tamalpais rises from Muir Woods, and as I climbed up to a clearing that day, with eagles above soaring in their circles, I allowed myself a meditation on the rings of that tree.

Those days, the early 1970s, the notion of the radical immanence, our belief that everything comes from the deep center, was very much around.  Hence, the model we thought of was the onion.

But here in Muir woods, I was thinking of the tree:  Why didn’t the new growth, the new ring, begin at the center with a new shoot as an onion?  I was puzzled.

The more I began to delve into this, the more the notion of interactivity presented itself. The tree acted on the environment and the environment on the tree. And they both evolved together and influenced one another.

I had learned that where redwoods were concerned, an occasional fire was an important way to stimulate new growth.  The “vital membrane” in the interface between the environment and the tree was in the growing edge. That which is “most alive” in the tree is not its center.

In a sense, the tree could not accommodate new growth in the same way as an onion. The center of the tree is the hardest, the least flexible, the driest and the least juicy part. So it could not allow for this inner core to issue new life each year. It is too set, too static.  At the same time, this very quality of the inner core is also a strength of the tree.

And the growing edge alone cannot hold the tree up to stand rooted, enduring storms and all kinds of weather.  But the growing edge carries the life from the roots to the leaves and back again. And yet, the knotholes from which the branches issue forth go toward the center, the place where the growing edge was when the branch first sprouted.

When a tree dies it is the growing edge that dies first. No more juice is raised from the roots, no more leaves the next year.

It is sad to see a sturdy tree lose its life. I remember reading a novel in which a fundamentalist who suspected his brother of idolatrous tree worship cut out a circular band of the growing edge and murdered a tree.

Then, I thought of the way a person  grows and our similarity in ways of growth to a tree.  Here too, a person’s encounters with environment, with his/her outer world, stimulates a “new ring” of experience on the “tree” of the person’s life.  To learn the most about someone and the way s/he grows in the world, one does best to examine the person’s vital growing edge rather than external possessions, or the person’s past or present.  The vital growing edge is the place where the person is vulnerable and also, most alive. That’s the point within the person where the outside happenings impinge on one, and where the person digests and assimilates that which did happen.  And nourishment from “sunshine,” “leaves” and “roots” also show themselves in the person’s vital growing edge .

There are differences between a person and tree too:  I suppose that we have a greater choice than trees in the way in which we handle the toxic and the nourishing influences in our lives.

Similarly, the analogy applies to psychePresent consciousness and attitude are the psyche’s current growing edge; memories and impressions are the rings.

Blessed are those who manage to keep the growing edge healthy.

The Book of Psalms opens [Psalm 1:1]:

In bliss is the person
who does not seek the advice of the spiteful,
who does not stand on the path of the wayward,
who does not associate with those who disparage everything,

Such a person is like a tree at the confluence of rivers
that give fruit in season and whose leaves do not wilt.

They have a healthy growing edge.

And beyond persons and consciousnesses, the analogy of the growing edge also applies to religions:  The “tree” of tradition gets its strength from the core and from the past. It endures the storms and stands rooted. And it needs the growing edge lest it die.

{NOTE:  Elsewhere, Reb Zalman refers to the emphasis of each of these two aspects respectively, (i.e., the “tree” of tradition or the “growing edge”), as Restoration or Renewal.  cf., Renewal is Not Judaism-LiteGabbai Seth}

The co-evolutional truth is dawning on us from many quarters. Duane Elgin’s book The Awakening Earth is a wonderful way to understand our evolution as a species.

Not only is the “tree” connected with the sun in her growth, but it is also connected with the moon.

This moon-connection is a Jewish contribution to the human’s consideration of trees. Whereas most people in the world reckon the renewal of trees by the sun, only we Jews place it, as suggested by Hillel, at the time of the full moon, the 15th day of the month of Shevat.

Tu Bishvat can now become our Gaian Yom Tov.

Many of the celebrations of our calendar occur on the full moon, the 15th day of the month.  Look at how well situated it is in our calendar:

  • After the midwinter solstice – Hanukah – we come to tu bishvat.
  • The following month, there is an increase, because the holiday of Purim at the middle of the month of Adar is bigger, stronger, with more ritual and with a book, the Megillat Esther.
  • Pessah and Pessah sheni come again on the full moon, and these celebrations are highlights of the year.
  • We have an early Sivvan celebration, Shavuot, at the close of the first quarter of the lunar cycle.
  • Next, we deal with calamity, after the full moon of Tammuz (the seventeenth day).
  • Once we get to the full moon of Av, we tune in to ancient celebrations connected, once again, with trees, and wood for the altar in Jerusalem (Tu b-av).
  • While mid Elul is quiet, after the full moon, we have the Besht‘s birthday.
  • The full moon of Tishrei, preceded by Yom Kippur brings us to Succot.

After that, the full moon is quiet until the next Tu Bishvat.

Here, I have shared a remez / a hint, a seed, of much more in the growth of that new ring on that first full moon of Sh’vat.  Happy Tu Bishvat

7 Responses to “Tu Bishvat: Our Gaian Yom Tov”

  1. shulamit sofia Says:

    writing from argentina in the middle of summer and the world is upside down but the eternal truths remain the same. thank you reb zalman for illuminating more of them for us who love to live in your light. XXShulie

  2. Michael Posluns Says:

    I was especially delighted to read Reb Zalman’s observation that the Tree of Life refers not to Torah but to Hokhma, Wisdom and that Wisdom was understood by the Sages to be a universal quality. My delight comes in part from a uniquely Canadian dimension.

    There is a most important legal case in Canadian constitutional history, known as the “Persons” case. The question was whether the provision in the 1867 Constitution regarding the appointment of “persons” to the Canadian Senate should be understood to include woman.

    This case went before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (then the highest appeal court for Canada) in the late 1920s. Lord Sankey, in his ruling, said, “The Constitution is a living tree.” I have always thought that this observation grew from the Proverb from which our song comes, i.e., Wisdom is the Tree of Life.

    Most of us today think that Lord Sankey demonstrated great (and universal) wisdom by including women as persons on the basis of that kind of wisdom. Indeed, there is today, a monument on Parliament Hill to the five women who brought that case.

    I hope that all our constitutions will be living trees. I look forward to planting a tree soon after the ground thaws.

    Michael Posluns.

  3. Chaplain Gloria Krasno Says:

    thanks to Zaide Zalman
    blessings, Gal-or-Ya

    my tree
    in tonight’s moonlight
    tall old willow
    proud of its tough bark in winter silhouette
    patiently awaits the rising of the sap
    when leaves will modestly hide
    her true nature

  4. Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan Says:

    Dear Reb Zalman,

    Todah Rabbah for your teachings, which I will share.

    My daughter brought her schoolmates to our Tu Bishvat Seder, and they were so amazed that “our religion has a holiday for trees!” We had so many people at the Seder, about 80 people. I think that this shows how important Tu Bishvat is becoming in our time.

    I have been thinking about “ki ha-adam ets hasadeh,” how much a person is like a tree. We relate to trees differently than to any other plant life. They are like us, the crown of their kind. We must have the roots, and the strong core, as you wrote. We must also have our branches and our growing edge, and continually grow throughout our lifetimes, as you teach. And after our lifetimes, we continue to be part of the web of life, giving life to others, like my mother of blessed memory who just died in Kislev.

    There are many trees with which I have had a personal relationship. Buber writes of the “I-Thou” relationship with a tree. I asked members of my community to meditate upon a tree with which they have had such a relationship, and it seems that everyone has had one.

    The concept of Hokhmah as the tree of life is also very meaningful to me, as I am getting ready to defend my dissertation on Ruah Haqodesh, and of course she is connected to Hokhmah in so much early Jewish thought.

    Thank you and shall I say, “Shanah Tovah,”

    Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan

  5. Jewish Renewal Tu BiShvat ReSources in brief | Kol ALEPH Says:

    […] At Jewish Renewal Hasidus there’s a beautiful teaching from Reb Zalman z”l called Tu BiShvat: Our Gaian Yom Tov. […]

  6. Jewish Renewal Hasidus » Blog Archive » The Fourth Turning Says:

    […] [NOTE: Reb Zalman doesn’t say who he has in mind, but it is possibly a reference to his teacher at Boston University, the late Rev. Howard Thurman. Zalman has said at several times that Rev. Thurman introduced for him the notion that the way a growing edge functions in trees is a metaphor for growth in religions, e.g., see here.] […]

  7. Susan berman Says:

    Thank you Aleph for this beautiful teaching from Reb Zalman. When he speaks of the ‘growing edge’, I’m reminded of perma culture, in which the path is to have as many edges as possible. In Permaculture, the edges are where the greatest encounters of diversity occur.
    An example would be a pond, or a lake, or a stream. It is at it’s edge that plant life flourishes, and there are multiple species, fish, frogs, birds,living organisms that thrive distinctly in that zone.
    And are we not the people of the fringes? Think human permaculture, the dynamic place of diversity, interaction and growth. Blessings on Aleph and our beloved Rabbi..
    Susan Berman

Leave a Reply