Tu B’Shvat Reflections on Parenthood, Extreme Weather, and the Human Family Tree

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January 12, 2014

April Gornik. Snowfall, Oil on Linen

In my house, we receive free Jewish books and music from the PJ library. One of their recent gifts is Joanie Leeds’ CD Family Tree, which our 4-year-old son adores. His favorite track is the first one, which he knows now by heart. He sings along with great gusto: “I want to be green! I want to be green! Take care of the earth and keep it clean!”

When the CD arrived earlier this winter, I thought, “Cute, it’s a Tu B’Shvat CD.” Of course, the whole thing isn’t Tu B’Shvat-focused. But there’s a song about taking care of the earth, and another song about tikkun olam. Given the timing of the CD’s arrival, I couldn’t help seeing it as a kid-friendly offering for “Jewish earth day.”

It’s fun to teach a 4-year-old about Tu B’Shvat. We’ll probably sing happy birthday to the trees in the backyard, and bless and eat a variety of tree fruits and nuts at a kiddie Tu B’Shvat seder at the synagogue. Maybe we’ll try to connect trees with taking care of the earth, the way Kai-Lan cleans up garbage in the back yard for the sake of the snails.

For adults, Tu B’Shvat offers opportunities for more meaningful reflection.

Tu B’Shvat reminds us to go outside and encounter the natural world where we are. Here in the Diaspora, Tu B’Shvat posters and food traditions remind us of the foodways of our Mediterranean ancestors, including Israel’s blooming almond trees. Where I live, Tu B’Shvat usually means bare trees rising out of snow.

Usually Tu B’Shvat falls during sugaring season in western Massachusetts. The maple sap rises when the days are above freezing and the nights are still cold. All around my region, plastic tubing sprouts like new growth, funneling sap drop by drop into collection buckets and tanks for boiling.

Well: that’s what usually happens. I don’t know how this year’s fifty-degree temperature fluctuations and arctic blasts will impact the syrup harvest. Does that kind of oscillation confuse the maple trees? How about the fifty-below-zero temperatures they’ve been registering in the heartland: how does that impact the food we grow?

Around the world we’re beginning to experience the impact of extreme weather. Unprecedented cold snaps. Relentless heat and drought. Superstorms like Typhoon Haiyan. What does it mean to celebrate Tu B’Shvat at a time when life on our planet feels so palpably fragile?

During the classical Tu B’Shvat seder, we move from the world of action and physicality (where we meet the divine Presence embodied in creation) to the world of essence and spirit (where we meet ein-sof, “without-end,” that aspect of God which is limitless and incomprehensible.) It’s easy to relate to immanent God: we can pray, weep, cajole, rejoice, and believe that S/He hears us. But how can we even begin to relate to God’s transcendence? It’s like trying to relate to the vast sweep of the entire universe, galaxy after galaxy unfolding.

Yet our tradition has the chutzpah to say that we can seek to relate even to that most vast and incomprehensible aspect of divinity. More: our tradition teaches that we can impact and influence that transcendence.

The choices we make impact our world. It’s a simple idea; even my 4-year-old can grasp it. Throw an empty juice box on the lawn, and the litter remains there until someone does the work of picking it up.

But take that idea and magnify it. Multiply it by every human being who has ever lived, and every choice made by each of those human beings. That’s one way to meet a facet of God’s infinity.

The interconnected karmic and causal system of humanity’s aggregated choices is so vast we can barely begin to grasp it. Right now our choices unfold into a world in which rampant consumption of earth’s resources creates climate change, which in turn contributes to extreme weather, which disproportionately impacts the poor. Because of choices made by (mostly) affluent Northern Hemisphere nations, people around the world experience God in the hurricane, in the drought, in the polar vortex.

I’m planted firmly within the Jewish Renewal tradition, which affirms that God is in all things. Torah teaches that אֵין עוֹד מִלְּבַדּוֹ, “There is nothing but God” (Deuteronomy 4:35). If this is so, then God is in even these extreme weather events. But that also means that God is in the damaged earth crying out for repair. And God is in the world’s poor, who struggle to survive the global changes wrought by wealthy nations’ overconsumption.

Jewish tradition forbids asking God for the impossible. For this reason, we don’t pray for rain during the dry season; the laws of nature are what they are, and our prayers can’t change that, so our liturgy guides us to pray then for dew instead. We can’t “wish away” climate change. That isn’t how prayer works.

But Jewish tradition also teaches that our actions have an impact on God. From a kabbalistic point of view, our mindful actions have the capacity to create unification on high between transcendence and immanence, to arouse the supernal flow of blessing, and to lift up the sparks that have been hidden throughout creation since the shattering of the vessels. From a more pragmatic point of view, our choices shape the world in which we live.

The kabbalistic tradition teaches that God withdrew God’s-self in order to make space for us and for our free will. Free will means that we can choose to harm, or we can choose to bring healing. And when we act here “below,” our actions are mirrored “on high.” When we act to bring healing to our world, we arouse the flow of healing within transcendent divinity too. This is one of the deep kabbalistic messages of the Tu B’Shvat seder.

If we can collectively make different choices about how we relate to our environment, how we relate to each other, how the rich care for the poor, how we care for the earth and all of its inhabitants, we set the stage for a different future. We co-create new realities. This is the real work of Tu B’Shvat: not just sanctifying our consumption of nuts and fruits and juices, but recognizing that we really are all interconnected through the ecology of the planet which we share.

The last song on the Joanie Leeds CD is about a family tree — you know, the metaphor we use to describe our origins. Our son doesn’t quite understand that yet. Every time we go outside, or walk in the woods, or see a picture of a tree, he proclaims, “That’s our family tree!” I’ve stopped trying to explain otherwise, because I think he’s on to something.

Every tree is a reminder of the human family’s interconnectedness. We who are blessed with good soil and healthy roots have an obligation to send sustenance to those on the thin, treacherous margins.

Let every tree we bless on Tu B’Shvat be a reminder that we are all planted in the same planet’s soil. That the choices we make impact everyone, including those who have the most to lose. That it’s our job to bring abundance to all who are shivering, and all who are homeless, and all who hunger.

Happy Tu B’Shvat, all.

Pictured Above: Snowfall, 2013, by April Gornik.

About the Artist: April Gornik lives and works in New York City and North Haven, Long Island. Her work is held in public and private collections, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, National Museum of American Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Cincinnati Museum, and High Museum of Art. She makes art “that makes her question, that derives its power from being vulnerable to interpretation, that is intuitive, that is beautiful.”

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