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Greenstein: ‘Celebrating new growth in the icy winter’

By: Anna Bearman | January 28, 2024

Greenstein: ‘Celebrating new growth in the icy winter’

By Micah Greenstein, Guest Columnist, Daily Memphian

Jewish mysticism, known as Kabbalah, has become more than a crossword puzzle favorite or an interest of Madonna and other celebrities.

The appeal of Kabbalah is the notion that there is more to reality than meets the eye. Things are never as they appear, especially regarding the Hebrew letters that form the words of the Bible.

“A mystic,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, is “anyone who refuses to accept the equation of reality only by what you see.”

A mystic has the sense that behind the seeming contradictions and brokenness we witness in the world and in our lives, there is a unity. Everything is connected. Or, to put it another way, it’s all one.

Enter this week’s Jewish holiday: Tu Bishvat. This is the original environmental holiday known as the new year for trees.

On the surface, it seems crazy we Jews celebrate the rebirth of trees in late January when the ground is frozen. While all Jewish holidays are geographically based in Israel, which is a tad warmer than Memphis, even northern Israel has snow-capped mountains.

What, therefore, is the rationale for celebrating new growth in the icy winter?

The answer is that what you see isn’t the total picture. While the trees may be bare above ground, future life is beginning to grow beneath the soil, a harbinger of springtime and brighter days ahead.

The spiritual message of Tu Bishvat is for humans not to despair no matter how cold or challenging the present may be, because a warmer future is germinating and taking root beneath the ground — literally — as far away as a warmer season may presently seem.

This big idea behind Tu Bishvat knows no borders. Judaism’s global celebration of the natural world embraces everything from the marvel of spring hydrangeas and aspen trees in summer to every living creation that evokes wonder and awe.

The connection between physical and spiritual growth that Tu Bishvat reminds us of is significant no matter one’s age or stage in life. 

Some trees, like giant sequoias, have endured for centuries. This is because they take a great deal of time to reach their full growth.

Similarly, the rabbis of Judaism teach us that people must understand it takes time to develop one’s own spiritual growth and strength.

Certain things simply cannot be hurried. It takes around nine months to develop a healthy baby. There are 24 hours in a day, and no force on earth can hurry or delay that cycle. Following the death of a loved one, it takes shiva — a full week — for a mourner to even begin the grieving process; sheloshim — a full month — to accept the loss; and yahrzeit — a full year — to adjust to the loss.

The link between the physical growth of the natural world and our spiritual growth is clear. Like the most beautiful trees on this planet, it takes time to heal and to grow spiritually.

Tu Bishvat’s message of a warmer future taking root, distant though it may seem in the thick of winter, also instills hope and confidence in a fragile and precarious world.

The root of the Hebrew word sh’vat is directly related to the biblical Hebrew word shvirut, “fragility,” signifying the fragility of this world and the fragility of life itself. 

Eventually, we all learn the things in life that are the most fragile are the most precious and the things in life that are the most precious are also the most fragile.

Bizzare weather patterns, holes in the fragile ozone layer and polluted air and water have created an urgent need for a global healing of cosmic proportion. The clock keeps ticking. The planet keeps turning. And only time will tell how well we are doing.

This month of January, Shevat, calls us to be more conscious, caring and responsible as stewards of this world and to remember the shvirut, the fragility of everything that is most precious to us.

Tu Bishvat is therefore a January holiday for skeptics and mystics alike. You don’t have to be a mystic to be enthralled with trees, just ask a New Englander in October or a visitor to the Smoky Mountains or Muir Woods in California any time of year.

In the presence of nature’s greatest wonders, even a skeptic would concur that behind the brokenness we witness in the world and in our lives, there is an awesome beauty and unity behind it all.

This month’s Tu Bishvat new year for trees holiday thus speaks to the world as a giant metaphor for the interconnectedness of all things — people, nature and time itself.

Throughout the days of our lives, we can all plant precious seeds of love and compassion that will reap a lifetime of meaning and blessing, even beyond our own lifetimes.

As the Talmud teaches, “Because my parents planted trees for me, likewise I am planting trees for those who come after me.” For the sake of our children, city, and world, let’s keep planting.

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