September 22, 2019

Why I Don’t Worship Trees

The more I learn about trees, the more I am blown away. These specimens of nature are the gift that keep on giving. They produce oxygen, reduce smog, suck up greenhouse gasses to fight climate change, reduce stormwater runoff to reduce floods, provide natural air conditioning, preserve and filter rainwater to fight droughts, and on and on. There are studies that show that trees can slow heartbeats, lower blood pressure and relax brain wave patterns. They can even help lower crime rates.

I can understand why in ancient times pagan societies worshipped the gods of nature. They revered the miraculous elements that sustained them — rain, fire, trees, the wind, the sun, the earth, the moon. They also must have trembled in awe at the power of nature to sustain and destroy. So, when they encountered the all-powerful God of Genesis, the God that created nature and is outside of nature, it must have been a shock to their system. How can any force be bigger and more powerful than nature itself?

In this brave new world that the Jewish Bible brought to humanity, nature may be miraculous, but only God is divine.

The holiday of trees, Tu B’Shevat, which is the subject of this week’s cover story by Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles, brings together nature and the divine. Because God is so invisible, it’s natural to focus on the concrete, on what we can see, feel, touch and smell.

This is how we approach most rituals — we focus on the physical. In the case of Tu B’Shvat, the tradition is to sample a diversity of fruits that come from trees. In recent years, the holiday has expanded to honor not just trees but all of the wondrous benefits of Mother Nature. Tu B’Shevat seders have become all the rage for nature lovers and environmental activists.

Nature itself is so valuable, so miraculous, so powerful, it’s easy to get carried away and give it a sense of godly divinity. My Jewish tradition, however, pushes me to transcend my deep attachment to nature and aim for a higher place.

Nature is so valuable, so miraculous, so powerful, it’s easy to get carried away and give it a sense of godly divinity. My Jewish tradition, however, pushes me to transcend my deep attachment to nature and aim for a higher place.

As the late Italian Jewish scholar Umberto Cassuto, professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote about Genesis: “Relative to the ideas prevailing among the peoples of the ancient East, we are confronted here with a basically new conception and a spiritual revolution. … The basically new conception consists in the completely transcendental view of the Godhead … the God of Israel is outside and above nature, and the whole of nature, the sun, and the moon, and all the hosts of heaven, and the earth beneath, and the sea that is under the earth, and all that is in them — they are all His creatures which He created according to His will.”

Genesis challenges us to separate love from worship. I love nature, but I worship the God that brought us the Ten Commandments, the Torah, Shabbat and all the traditions that sustain us spiritually and communally. A crucial part of that tradition is to care for nature.

As Rabbi Klein Miles writes in our Tu B’Shevat seder, “Even in times of war, Torah tells us, we shouldn’t cut down fruit trees. In the Garden of Eden, God told the first humans to serve and protect the land. Yet, each year humans destroy more than 5 billion trees in tropical rainforests — ecosystems that are essential to sustaining life on Earth. Countless species are threatened with extinction. The world gives so much to us … yet we have forgotten our obligation to be stewards of this precious world.”

One way to remember our obligation to our precious world is to partake in our Tu B’Shevat Seder, and use it as a discussion guide. The rabbi has a knack for bringing intimacy to rituals, for asking questions that help us define who we are and what moves us.

She writes: “In the tradition of the mystics, choose a variety of fruits: hard outsides / soft insides (banana and kiwi); Soft outsides / hard insides (peaches and plums); entirely edible (figs and starfruit). Which one are you? Do you wear a protective shell around a tender heart? Are you vulnerable, with a strong core? What do you hope to peel away this year, and what weight do you want to dislodge?”

Eating the fruit is the ritual, and finding meaning in the act is the spiritual. This is the Jewish way: We’re called upon to aim higher and go deeper. Just as we transcend rituals to find meaning, we transcend our natures to refine our characters. A refined character understands that while we don’t worship our miraculous trees, we’re certainly obligated to take care of them.

Happy Tu B’Shevat.