In honor of the approach of Tu B’Shvat, I’m going to make a point of recycling–Torah, that is. Here’s something I wrote a year ago for Radical Torah; I know some of you have seen it, but perhaps not everyone has?
I’m cranking hard to get Chapter Eight out of my life (at least for the time being). Hopefully I’ll still have a chance to come up with some fresh 15 Shvat Torah this week, but in any case, here’s some stuff that hasn’t yet been composted.
Oh, and here’s your seasonally-appropriate bonus link. You’ve probably seen it, but have you actually started changing your own actual behavior? Just sayin’. Trees don’t like global warming, after all.
Tu Bishvat is, of course, the new year of the trees, the first hint that winterâ€™s blusters are on the wane and that hopeâ€“growth, renewalâ€“is already on the way. Though the original importance of the day was more commercial than ecological (it was about the tithing of fruit) the holiday offers a rich set of associations between our relationship to the land, to the trees, to the fruits for which we say a blessing of thanks every time we eat them. The Kabbalists took this further, using the mysteries of seeds and peels and shells as a way to map our inner world and relationships to the Divine.
In honor of Tu Bishvat, Iâ€™d like to discuss a little Torah that is, for many people, deeply troubling. The Mishnah in Pirke Avot tells us, â€œR. Shimon said, A person who is walking along repeating a teaching (of Torah) and interrupts his learning to say, â€˜What a beautiful tree,â€™ â€˜What a beautiful field,â€™ deserves to lose his life.â€ (Pirke Avot 3:7)
The sorts of problems that people have with this passage are obvious: it seems to denigrate the appreciation of Godâ€™s Creation, to fetishize Godâ€™s words, to promote an insular and myopic view of what matters in life and in the world. But none of that takes into consideration the context of the mishnah. The grave sin here is inturrupting the learning of Torah to say these things.
And given that the language here is probably talking about a person engaged in the repetition and memorization of the always-fragile oral tradition, pausing in the wrong place could cause a person to forget or, worse, corrupt the tradition. Which would be nothing short of absolute disaster. The intention here was to exhort the reader to mindfulness in our actions and giving everything we do our full attention. Itâ€™s about not being split, partly here and partly there: listen fully when you listen, eat fully when you eat, study fully when you study. Donâ€™t study when you eat. Itâ€™s not that admiring trees is badâ€“rather the oppositeâ€“but the time to do it is not when oneâ€™s attention must be turned to something else. The time to do it is when oneâ€™s attention must be turned toâ€¦ admiring trees. And sunsets. And fields. And all of the glory of Godâ€™s work. There are many times for that, and this season, Tu Bishvat, is one of them.
Another way to honor this holiday is to (also) take a break from oneâ€™s studies and to get out there in the big world and do some maâ€™asim tovim, good works. Acts of righteousness, even. To honor the trees by becoming like them.
For, it is written, â€œThe one whose deeds exceed his wisdom, he is like a tree whose branches are few, but whose roots are many, so that even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow against it, it could not be budged from its place, as it is said in the Torah: â€˜For you shall be as a tree planted by waters, that spreads its roots by the river, and it shall not notice the heatâ€™s arrival, but its foliage shall be green; it shall not dread the year of drought, neither shall it cease yielding fruit.â€™â€ (Pirke Avot 3:17)
Tu Bishvat Sameach!