In modern Western tradition, we understand time as linear; we’re moving along a line, from point A to B to C and so on. Time is a ribbon, pulled taut, and it stretches out both behind us and in front of us, connecting us to histories and futures. We can measure time, in eons or nanoseconds, and this measuring anchors us, it lets us know not just where we are but when we are.
This is not the only way to think about it, though. Some spiritual frameworks view the perception of time I’ve described above as a human construct. Buddhism is a prominent example of a spirituality that understands time as an illusion, a sort of security blanket that humans use, despite the actual truth that only the present moment can be proven to exist. Everything else is either memory or speculation.
In Jewish tradition, we tend to think more cyclically than linearly about the calendar. Case in point — in the Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, Chapter 1, the Rabbis state that the year begins four times. In the month of Nissan we start counting “for kings and holidays”, In the month of Elul we start counting for “animal tithes”, In the month of Tishrei we start counting “years, Sabbaticals, and Jubilees,” and in the month of Shevat we start counting for trees. This is the origin of the modern holiday we call Tu B’Shvat.
At first blush, this is as confusing as it can be. Are there four years, all happening at once? When am I? This existential crisis will continue, I promise, until we stop trying to fit the spiraling, multi-faceted idea into a linear structure.
I believe that in this Mishnah, our Rabbis are calling something crucial to our attention — the fabric in which we exist requires different types of focus at different times. Moreover, these foci don’t need to compete with one another. We have within us the divine ability to multitask, and the Rabbis are asking that we call these four things the top categories within which other tasks exist.
It’s striking that one top category is trees. All the others make sense — kings and holidays, yes, animal tithes, of course (the Israelites have to support the priesthood), years and Sabbaticals, sure. But trees? Why?
One possible answer is evident when we take a look around the Bible — our sacred text is peppered with respect for nature. In Genesis 1, Adam is given the obligation to care for “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth.” In Leviticus 19, the Israelites are commanded to plant trees for fruit and to give them time to grow: “three years it shall be forbidden to you, not to be eaten.” In Deuteronomy 20, a section about war, the Israelites are commanded to leave the trees alone when they lay siege to another city. “Are the trees of the field human beings, that they should be included in your siege?” asks the text.
This question is relevant today as well, and we would do well to consider it as we observe and celebrate Tu B’Shvat this year.
As we head into the New Year of Trees, we are facing unprecedented attacks on the natural world, the impact of which is more devastating than any of us may be able to imagine. The planet’s average temperature is rapidly rising, causing the oceans to warm and ice sheets to melt. Sea levels are rising, causing deadlier hurricanes, more natural disasters, and devastation to coastline communities across the globe. Species of plants and animals are dying out (do you think giraffes are cute? Because there may not be any soon), reefs are turning white, and falling into disrepair (which means that tropical flora and fauna cannot thrive there), rainforests are being consumed by fires (destroying plant life we don’t even know about and rendering animals without a home). It’s bad.
The way I see it, our sacred texts decry this kind of human behavior by centering one stratum of our year on the natural world. In other words, it’s very Jewish to be a climate activist.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one who sees it that way. Actually, Jewish organizations the world over have been responding to this holy call to action for years now. Now, they’ve taken things to the next level. Maybe it’s because everything seems more dire after a year of sheltering in place, or maybe it’s because this new digital frontier that COVID-19 has created allows us to unite in ways we once couldn’t. Maybe it’s a little of both.
The Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest brings together nearly 90 Jewish organizations of all stripes to discuss how “to connect our Jewish values to action in order to address our current climate crisis.” Think of it as a Limmud festival, but all focused on climate action. Sessions topics range from “Why Climate Change Must Be a Central Moral Issue of The Jewish Community” to “Addiction, Hasidic Spirituality and Climate Change” and “Regenerative Change: Compost as Climate Action & Ritual in These Times.” It is, indeed, bold and exciting to have so many Jews reclaiming the imperative to take care of the world as a solidly Jewish value. It is also necessary.
The ills that plague our world are many and varied (including an honest to goodness plague), which can make it overwhelming to think about Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) these days. I often find myself wondering where to even start. When I think, though, about the Rabbis concept of intersecting strata of time and space, it becomes clear that I don’t have to choose. Each of the issues demands a different kind of focus, but they can all be valued and addressed in their way. Instead of a ribbon pulled taut, maybe our time here is more like a tangled up ball of twine.
Let’s not forget that we, too, are a part of nature. If the Earth goes down, she’s taking us with her. Like Adam, let’s take time to care for each seed-bearing plant and each creature. Like the Israelites coming into the land of Israel, let’s give the trees the respect they deserve. Let’s join together and declare that we are the guardians of the planet, just in the same way as the world guards us from harm, gives us food and oxygen and sunlight and clouds.