Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tu B'shvat

This coming Monday is the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, also known as Tu B'shvat, the "new year of the trees." This is based on the following mishnah:

There are four New Years days: the first of Nisan is the New Year for reckoning the reigns of kings and the feasts; the first of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of the cattle; the first of Tishrei is the New Year for reckoning of the years and taking stock of human lives; the first of Shevat is the New Year for the fruit trees. That is according to the school of Shammai; the school of Hillel says on the 15th of Shevat."- Mishnah Rosh Hashanah
The mystics of Safed developed a seder for Tu B'shvat; like other places in the Jewish tradition where the framework is there but the halakhic demands are not too developed, the Tu B'shvat seder has been reclaimed and repurposed in recent years as opportunity to put an awareness of the natural world around us into a religious context, and also to remind ourselves of the damage we can and do do to the world and the steps we can take to change it. After all, tikkun olam of course literally means "repair of the world."

Many resources for Tu B'shvat seders are available on the internet: a good overview from Shomrei Adamah is found on the COEJL website here, and in fact there are numerous Tu B'shvat programs on the program bank section of the COEJL website - click here and scroll down to T.

The gist of it is that there are four cups of wine/grape juice, as on Pesah - each cup corresponding to one of the "four worlds" of kabbalistic thought. Fruits and nuts that correspond to the "world" being spoken of are eaten, and readings and songs and crafts are included to fill the thing out and give it a festive air.

The first "world" is assiyah - the "physical, everyday world that we live in, the world of earth." The environmental message of this could be the profligate use of the earth's natural resources - oil, coal and others - and the reliance on landfills to get rid of so much of the waste that we generate with our rather profligate lifestyles and the way we have arranged our society and our economy.

The second world is yetzirah, "the world of water." Water, of course, is about the most necessary thing for human survival, yet we waste it terribly - particularly in rich countries. I think of Phoenix, with its desert climate but its myriad resource-intensive golf courses. I think of how it is illegal to reuse rainwater in Colorado without a permit. I think of the shrinking water resources around the world and how some experts are saying that water is one of the resources (along with oil, of course) that may cause wars in the next century. I think about how development and climate change are affecting the coral reefs along our shores, and how the damage may be irreversible if we don't make serious changes now.

The third world is briyah, "the world of air." Another of the things most necessary for human survival. This year I'm thinking about the increase in asthma rates, both in America and worldwide

Currently, experts are struggling to understand why the number of asthma sufferers is rising by an average of 50 percent every decade worldwide. In the United States alone, according to the WHO, the number of asthmatics has leapt by over 60 percent since the early 1980s.
and its environmental causes

In recent years, scientists have shown that air pollution from cars, factories and power plants is a major cause of asthma attacks. And more than 159 million Americans -- over half the nation's population -- live in areas with bad air. A research study published in 2002 estimated that 30 percent of childhood asthma is due to environmental exposures, costing the nation $2 billion per year. And studies also suggest that air pollution may contribute to the development of asthma in previously healthy people.
and how the way we behave, the way we heat our homes and power our cars and all the actions we take, how these affects our lives, the lives of our children, and the lives of people all over the world who's fates we never even consider.

And the fourth world is atzilut, the world of fire. Not represented by any food, this world is symbolic of perfection, of the spirit, of God. This is an opportunity to think of the godliness we experience through nature - of the natural world as an expression of holiness, of God's creativity. I'm not that outdoorsy a person, but I have been blessed many times to feel such a great sense of holiness in a beautiful natural setting.

As the liturgy says, "milo kol ha'aretz k'vodo" - "the whole world is filled with God's glory." It's up to us to help keep it that way. If our Tu B'shvat practice can in any way reinforce our ability and our willingness to do that, then it is a valuable practice indeed.


Pokeberry Mary said...

A very interesting tutorial.
I am an asthmatic, but I live in an area with very little industry most of it having moved overseas. I'm told my problem is that there are so many trees--humidity which leads to excess mold--which I am allergic to and of course tree pollen which I am allergic to. It is a lovely place though.

Anonymous said...

nice article upon pollution issue..... i had found more information about basic of pollution issue but this is not sufficient. If you know more please explain.