Tu B'Shevat -- the New Year for trees that begins at sundown on Feb. 8 -- is a minor holiday, but one that grows in importance in our rapidly climate-challenged world.
To the Kabbalists of 16th-century Tzfat, Tu B'Shevat was when the Tree of Life in the center of creation renewed the flow of life to the universe. They developed a seder for the day, blessing and eating fruit while drinking, yes, four glasses of wine. The mystics believed that while this was the dead of winter, if we just nudged creation in the right direction through prayer, then spring would return.
In modern Tu B'Shevat, many congregations recreate the mystics' seder, while sermons take on a greenish hue, and Hebrew-school and day-school kids study the environment.
Exquisite naturalists that the early Hebrews were, Tu B'Shevat coincides with the blossoming of almond trees, the very first flowers. In Hebrew, almond is sha-ked, which also means "watch" or "wake" because when it bloomed, the world reawakened.
Tu B'Shevat reminds us that it's time for our own reawakening.
The still-collapsing economy has left us in the winter of our financial discontent, with banks buried under a blizzard of bad debt, companies vanishing daily and the workforce downsizing. But in our 20-year binge of buying, refinancing and loading up on debt, we forgot that our economy is built on an ecology -- and that ecology is as troubled as our financial system.
For if you place your finger on the pulse of the planet, you'll discover temperatures rising, glaciers melting, the ocean warming, ice caps contracting, rainforests burning, species vanishing, coral reefs dying, old growth forests disappearing, deserts spreading and world population rising.
Ecclesiastes wrote that "all the rivers run to the sea," but that's not true today: The Yellow, Nile and Colorado are only three of many rivers that are tapped-out muddy trickles at their mouths. They literally "empty" into the sea.
On the New Year for trees, it's important to remember that trees themselves are in trouble. While Amazon's much-mourned rainforests suffer from decades of clear-cutting and burning, a 50-year study released only last month discovered that forests across the American West are dying twice as fast as they were 17 years ago, trees of all ages are passing away before new ones replace them. Western forests are also downsizing. The scientists who conducted the study blame warming temperatures for the die-off.
Our pre-Industrial Revolution climate contained only 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide, 0.0028 percent of our air. Today, after centuries of pumping greenhouse gases into the sky through the burning of fossil fuels, C02 has risen to an astonishing 485 ppm -- and is still climbing, with hugely unforeseen consequences. The loss of forests exacerbates this warming trend, for trees are carbon sponges, absorbing C02 from the air, storing it as wood while cooling the climate. When trees are burned, or just die and rot, that carbon is released, and C02 concentrations rise.
Without question, dramatically increasing atmospheric carbon has been the largest experiment in human history. Unless we awaken and decide otherwise.
One of President Obama's first actions in office was a directive to increase automobile mileage standards, a climate-cooling action Detroit has sidestepped for decades. And renewable energy is a key component of the $819 billion stimulus package the House passed last week, for Obama intends to double carbon-free renewable energy production in only three years, tighten restrictions on most federal buildings and improve the efficiency of 2 million homes.
That's all great, but we can't sit on the sidelines, letting Obama and St. Albert the Gore save us. We've got to get skin in the game.
For each American Jew, Tu B'Shevat is a green shofar calling for a new age, a radical reawakening to our personal contributions to the changing atmospheric cocktail above. If the car we drive, the house we heat, the trash we toss, the job we work in and the food we eat add to the mounting carbon load, Tu B'Shevat is a day to reflect on that. And awaken.
At this moment in Eretz Yisrael, almond flowers are blossoming; spring is returning to the Holy Land. Those Kabbalists nudged nature out of winter through blessing and prayer. We need to nudge nature, too, but differently.
One of my favorite prayers is: "It is a Tree of Life for those who hold fast to it," using the tree as a metaphor for Torah itself. Tu B'Shevat reminds us that trees are watching, that we must hold fast to nature by renewing our commitment to the creation that sustains us and awaken to the signature challenge of this century -- building a solid economy on a strong ecology.
This Tu B'Shevat, pick one way to cool the planet -- and just do it.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Lower Merion Conservancy. E-mail him at: [email protected] .