Friday, January 14, 2022/12 Shevat, 5782
Parashat B’shalach Exodus 13:17−17:16
As a child, Jane Goodall developed a friendship with a tree in her backyard that she affectionately called “Beech.” She spent many afternoons climbing upon it, reading books under its leafy branches, and observing the life within. In this tree, she began to dream about what it would be like to live in nature with animals. She developed a deep appreciation for the natural world, which would one day lead to her life’s work as a primatologist and conservationist.
It all began with a tree.
According to Kohelet Rabbah, trees were the first thing God asked us to protect. When God created the first human being, God pointed out all of the trees, saying, “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are… Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world. If you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.” Trees symbolize the natural world and our responsibility in caring for it.
So important is this obligation that we have an entire holiday celebrating trees; its name is Tu BiShvat, and it begins Sunday evening. Believed to be the day when the sap rises in trees and new buds start to bloom, Tu BiShvat is called the birthday of the trees. In ancient times, Israelites would renew their commitment to God and the Jewish community by tithing their crops for people in need of food (Deuteronomy 14:22-23). They would also plant trees to bring new life into the world. Today, Tu BiShvat is an opportunity to celebrate the beauty in nature and cultivate our role in protecting it.
Tu BiShvat almost always occurs near the Torah portion Beshallach. After ten plagues and centuries of suffering in the land of Egypt, the Pharaoh finally frees the Israelites from bondage in this portion. They come to the Sea of Reeds and are unsure how to proceed. Just then, they hear the Egyptians approaching from behind. The Pharaoh changed his mind and wanted to capture the Israelites once more. According to one Midrash, Moses prayed to God for a solution, while the Israelites fought over who should go into the water first. Just then, a young boy named Nachshon jumped into the sea. God called out to Moses, “My beloved is sinking in the sea, and you are praying?! Tell the Israelites to get going!” The Israelites began to follow, and soon the water had parted, allowing them to walk to freedom (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:5).
The Israelites had been overwhelmed by the gravity of the situation. They bickered and yelled and prayed to God, but they were stuck in a place of inaction, uncertain if they could do anything to change their fate.
On Tu BiShvat, we recommit ourselves to take care of the world, and yet as we do, we too may be feeling overwhelmed and stuck. Witnessing the massive effects of deforestation, overpopulation, overconsumption, pollution, and fossil fuels, we may ask if it is even possible to make a difference.
In “The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times,” Jane Goodall insists that it is. She explains, “each one of us has a role to play no matter how small. Every day we make some impact on the planet, and the cumulative effect of millions of small ethical actions will truly make a difference.”
Nachshon’s steps into the water, however insignificant they appeared, changed the course of our story. Sometimes small actions have a greater impact than we know.
This Tu Bishvat, let us commit ourselves to act. Perhaps you will join my family in volunteering with Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservatory or another local organization to participate in a clean-up of our trails, nature preserves and, beaches. A couple of weeks ago, Senate Bill 1383 began mandating Californians to place organic materials into compost bins rather than into the trash. Perhaps you will learn more about how to compost or share your knowledge with others for whom this is new. There are so many possible ways to honor this holy day.
This Saturday, we had planned to have a special Tu Bishvat event with the Garden Church. Unfortunately, that event needed to be postponed. In its place, I will be leading a special online Tu Bishvat Havdalah service at 7 pm, filled with Jewish teachings, music, and reflections on the spiritual aspects of the day. We will end our prayer by discussing steps we wish to take to care of our natural world. As Nachshon and Jane Goodall teach us, even small actions can have an enormous effect.
Rabbi Cassi Kail