By Edmon J. Rodman
LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Celebrating Tu B’Shevat this year on an alien moon called Pandora? Why not?
As seen in “Avatar,” the 3-D, billion-dollar-grossing movie, it’s definitely a place where trees are revered.
In the film, bluish people called Na’vi worship ancient trees. Here on earth, a Jewish people who have a navi or two of our own (“navi” in Hebrew means prophet) will celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, on Friday night and Saturday, Jan. 29–30, expressing in song and seder a kind of tree love as well. Why?
Trees represent a commitment; planting one is just the beginning of a long-term relationship. Isn’t this a kind of love?
Certainly the day has become a rallying point for caring for trees and the environment by Jewish green forces, like the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. But before the greening of the holiday and the fear of rising seas, there was unequivocal, earth-solid tree love. Like the Na’vi, is tree love part of our roots?
Cedars of Lebanon were harvested as building materials to help construct the Temple. For the daily sacrifice practiced there, a secure supply of wood was necessary. Both Iron Age wealth and military might were dependent on charcoal as a heat source for smelting silver and forging weapons.
The Torah includes an edict against destroying trees even in warfare (Deuteronomy 20:19). The love verses in Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, metaphorically compare a couple’s young love with the imagery of trees:
“Like an apple tree among trees of the forest,
“So is my beloved among the youths,
“I delight to sit in his shade …” (2:3)
Not a shock, since we are a people whose default metaphor for Torah, for ultimate knowledge and life, is etz chayim, the tree of life.
On Tu B’Shevat, we behold the lovely shekadia, the stately almond tree, and her white blossoms that we praise in song.
Yet tree love aside, how many of us would plant one in front of our homes?
Two years ago I went door to door trying to persuade my neighbors to allow a city-funded group to plant free trees on the parkway in front of their homes. Though many were happy to have the tree, I discovered many others who had a rustling ambivalence toward them.
Some of the objections: Trees need to be watered; their limbs and roots block views and sewer lines; and their leaves and flowers drop sap on cars.
Additionally, trees need to be trimmed, watched over in wind and protected from disease. And, as in “Avatar,” zealous developers see them as obstacles.
So why the love affair? Trees are a lot of work. What do they give us in return?
Shade, fruit, sense of place, cleaner air: We know about all that. Danish modern furniture, olivewood Shabbat candlesticks from Israel: We know about that, too.
Trees give us hope — like the ancient horse chestnut tree that brought Anne Frank some happiness while in hiding from the Nazis. In her diary on May 13, 1944, she wrote about the tree for the last time:
“Our chestnut tree is in full bloom. It’s covered with leaves and even more beautiful than last year.”
The tree is now diseased and requires special care, but its descendants, saplings, will be sent out around the world to more than 200 schools and locations, including 11 locations in the United States that showed, according to a piece in the New York Times, “the consequences of intolerance.”
Trees bring us understanding and friendship between neighbors. My parents always had a fig tree growing in their backyard in Anaheim, Calif. In the 1990s, their neighborhood and area progressively saw the arrival of Lebanese and Palestinian households. The local newspapers even began to describe the adjoining commercial area as Little Gaza.
As it turned out, the Lebanese family who moved in across the street planted their own fig tree. My father, Murray, passed away last year, and after his death I discovered that he and the neighbor had a wonderful relationship, exchanging fruits in their seasons and news of their families.
Trees give us a sense of time and a touch of the eternal. Somewhere in the White Mountains, near Bishop, Calif., lives a tree named Methuselah. Named for the oldest living person in the Bible, it’s a bristlecone pine, among the oldest living things on earth.
In the 1950s, the forest service did a core sample of Methuselah and estimated its age at 4,789 years. It was growing long before Moses.
I visited the bristlecones one year; they were gnarled, twisted, ancient. If something can live that long, then so can our traditions and memories.
We love our trees. While we don’t sit around cross-legged and pray to them, like they did in “Avatar,” we do have a bond, a connection to our memories and humanity.
This Tu B’Shevat, sans spaceships and 3-D specs, create your own special effect: Pick up a shovel, dig a hole and plant something that will grow into the future.
Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.