When I was about to turn 21, and my brother Charles was 19, we took a road trip across the United States. As young Canadians, we were eager for an adventure through the American West. We experienced the stunning vistas of Utah, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and the great redwoods of Yosemite National Park in California. It was a formative experience for me, and solidified my love of this country which I have called home for nearly my entire adult life.
It’s no coincidence that my love of America blossomed as I witnessed its natural wonders and vast open spaces. There is a deep beauty to be enjoyed in the magnificence of nature which leaves us humbled, and aware of how all life is interconnected. There is nothing more authentically spiritual for me than witnessing nature in its glory and power—when it is beautiful, and even when we are imperiled by it.
The Jewish holiday of Tu B’shvat —literally translated as the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which this year coincides with the 7th and 8th of February—is a celebration of nature. The new year for the trees, it is first mentioned in the Mishna, the rabbinic commentary, but did not come to be ritualized and celebrated until the 16th century by Kabbalists.
It coincided with the blossoming of the almond trees in Jerusalem and was meant to offer appreciation for the first fruits and nuts given to us in nature’s bounty, and the trees which provide them. Similar to the seder, the ritualized meal that celebrates Passover, the first mention of the consumption of fruits and nuts for a Tu B’shvat seder was recorded in the 17th century with a detailed description of the order in which they should be eaten.
Growing up in Montreal with its harsh winters, I’d never heard of Tu B’shvat, much less saw fruit trees bloom in February. It was a minor holiday and one that largely fell out of practice until it was reclaimed in the early 20th century and given new life. It became especially significant to the pioneering Zionists of Israel, who took the holiday as an occasion to connect to the land and take their children on hikes into the forests, and was again revived by American Jews in the 1960s and 70s who were looking to connect Jewish tradition to environmental values.
In the same way the Passover seder allows us to ask questions about the story of the Jewish people, the Tu B’shvat seder is an opportunity to ask questions about the planet we live on, how we can better protect and cherish it, celebrate nature through singing and learning, and reaffirm green values.
Jews who celebrate Tu B’shvat are looking to answer the question of how we connect to the earth. Just as we look to repair the world through acts of tikun olam, we should heal our planet.
To do so is a physical manifestation of a larger Jewish spiritual value: how to be useful and connected to others.
We are all interdependent and connected through the natural world we share. I think not only Jewish people, but all of humanity, is obligated to fix and protect the planet. We must encourage others to do likewise through deed and action—these jobs cannot be accomplished without common purpose.
We are reminded of this purpose by holidays like Tu B’shvat. This relatively obscure, but important Jewish holiday is a chance not only to bring environmental values into Jewish homes, but to share our tradition with others as well. Just as we are interwoven as human beings and obligated to care for each other, so must we join with our neighbors to take the steps to connect to nature together. The Jewish celebration of the new year of trees seems a fine place to reaffirm our commitment to the environment through recycling, careful consumption and protecting and enjoying nature’s bounty.
The first step is simply to go outdoors. Just as the journey my brother and I made 60 years ago stays with me still, going out into nature and seeing the gifts we’ve been given and why they need to be protected is the gateway to understanding what we must fight to preserve. It is a Jewish value to repair and heal the world, and showing our appreciation for the trees by celebrating Tu B’shvat, and all the beauty in nature that surrounds us, is an important first step.Edgar M. Bronfman is president of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life. He is the former CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd, and is currently working on a book about Jewish peoplehood with journalist Ruth Andrew Ellenson.