Roots and Branches - Tu B’Shvat: The New Year of the Trees

We enter this winter month following record high temperatures last month yet again. One may argue this is true for many of us both internally and externally. It was not that long ago that our country joined the global community in signing and supporting the International agreement on Climate Change in Paris and intensifying our attention to issues of environmental (inc. economic and racial) justice in our society. Given the new Administration and what we fear will be be regressive approaches- especially in regard to our environment, we will need to double down locally and state-wide, as well as in our personal and professional life choices to continue to have whatever impact we may be able to make towards a sustainable planet,

We as a community joined Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light a couple of years ago, led by a number of our members. Through POWER's Economic Dignity team we are working on Green jobs in North Philadelphia. Many of our members are involved in everything from Fair Trade work, to water and alternative energy issues, the newly formed Northwest Philadelphia Solar Coop, climate change actions through Philly's 350.org, Standing Rock and many more initiatives. It may seem strange to be focusing on these issues in the peak of winter, warming as it is, except that our Jewish tradition invites us to pay attention to what is alive and generating life underground, even as the surface may be cold and snowy (or slushy). The main Jewish holiday of February is Tu B'Shevat.

The elevated celebration of what was once a minor Jewish holiday Tu B’Shevat, the ancient Jewish New Year for the Trees is on Shabbat, Friday evening, February 10th at 7:30pm. The next morning we will join again with our congregational school on Shabbat morning in the last of three successful pilot Shabbat school programs this year. We are already reflecting on this year with Rivka, our teachers, education committee and school families with an eye to next year's program. Many of our students and their parents helped create the environmentally themed tiles that adorn our new congregational welcome and information board in the main entrance foyer. There are many gateways into taking action for the sake of our precious world.

One of four historical “New Years” in the Jewish calendar- the 15th of the month of Shevat is a reminder for the need to honor the cycles of nature and the living trees that we inter-breathe with, reconnect with the earth we are extensions of and have impact on, and look at the Tree of Life as a guiding metaphor for relationship. This year’s Tu B’Shevat Seder will, once again, be led by Rabbi Yael and I, with the involvement of our spiritual life council.

The overall health and well-being of our ecosystem is fragile and resilient. Paying attention to the nurturing of the parts, while attending to the whole is one of the ecological messages of this holiday, both in terms of trees themselves and the sustenance they offer and need, and also in the macro-spiritual template of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Here the sephirot (or spheres of Divine energy) are only compatible and ultimately sustainable if the web of connective tissue, the “partzufim” or face-to-face relational dynamics connect the spheres. Without this interdependent web of connectivity, the whole structure decays, withdraws and ceases to grow. As for the single tree, so for the forest- as for the individual, so for the community and/or organization and nation.

As part of our overall theme this year of strength through engagement, I encourage you to think about how you engage consciously and Jewishly with your relationship to the roots and branches of your own life- and see how your personal and our communal spiritual and justice actions bring you more deeply into relationship with others and this world, and where there may need to be some trimming and weeding!

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan urged us to move beyond self-realization and the ongoing renewal of the Jewish People to see peaceful interdependence and Godly living as, what we would term today, our global responsibility. In this respect I suggest that the future of the Jewish people can only be found in a globally sustainable, evolving religious culture—interdependent and interconnected with healthy and conscious global systems—environmental, political, social, cultural, economic and spiritual. This is what I mean when I use the word “sustainable”, which is how the U.N. Brutland Commission defined it in 1987, with my addition of the religious or spiritual realm.

We are hoping this year to re-energize our Sustainable Mishkan team. Please be in touch with Julie Meyers- our new Green Team chair, Rabbi Yael or I if you want to get involved adding a perspective to any and all programming we do in the building, and reclaiming an awareness and greater support for our own existing policies and programs.

We call our Torah “Eytz Hayyim”, the life-giving tree. I look forward to commemorating and celebrating Tu B’Shevat together with you in the month ahead, as well as continuing to plant and reap the bounty of what we are nurturing together in shared conscious community in all our moments of connection, prayer, study, activism and acts of caring.

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