D’var Torah: The limits of the giving tree

Rabbi Andy Kastner

Rabbi Andy Kastner

Last week when I took a walk with my 2½ year old to the park where we have had a small community garden plot for the last year, I did not expect to see resilient winter edibles, lettuces, kale, broccoli; forgotten foodstuff that I thought had surely browned over. This winter has felt a bit unusual. I have logged more than a dozen instances where I have worn shorts and shirtsleeves outside. Within the past few months we have picnicked outside twice. It has been a winter without, well, winter.

For the first time in my memory I will celebrate the holiday of Tu B’Shvat (the new year for the trees) this week, and look outside and see the first reaches of daffodils instead of the frozen tundra of winter. It is on this date, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat that changes in the natural world occur (particularly germane to the land of Israel) bringing with it the first emerging blossoms. The seasons change and we take note. However, tradition tells that the actual day for this event initially was a matter of dispute. The Mishnah in tractate Rosh HaShanah records that Beit Shammai declares that the new year of the trees should be the first day of the month of Shvat, while Beit Hillel asserts that this new-year should be held on the 15th of Shvat.

Of this dispute the Talmud asks mai taima? – why does the new year for the trees occur in Shvat? Rabbi Elazer responds in the name of Rabbi Oshaya saying, even though most of winter is still ahead, the majority of the year’s rains have fallen. Rashi tells us that this means that, “Since most of the rains of the year have already passed, the time of reproduction is beginning, the sap is rising in the trees and the fruits are starting to put forth their buds.”

Picture for a minute the process these two schools undertook to establish this principle. A calculation of this sort is not one bound to the beit midrash (house of study) steeped in logical give and take. To the contrary, both Talmudic schools had to literally go out to the fields in order to observe nature attentively and study the rain and its patterns. In other words, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel each took note of this natural phenomenon occurring at different times. At the heart of Tu B’Shvat is an invitation if not a directive to step outside, observe, evaluate and take note of the natural world and its changes.

Today, we engage with the outdoors much differently than our ancestors. Indeed the majority of us are living so greatly removed from the natural world and the source of our food. In the time of Thomas Jefferson nine out of every 10 citizens cultivated the earth. Yet today due to growing agribusiness, just one in every 500 people engages in agrarian pursuits. And thus it takes the pause and perhaps the urging of Tu B’Shvat to go out and see what is occurring outside.

And it is a disturbing sight. Just this past week I read of drought, record high prices of beef, vanishing populations of mackerel off the coast of Chile (all of which feeds our appetite for farm-raised salmon), the USDA adjusted the plant hardiness map, reflecting the roughly 5 degree change that has impacted the US in the past 12 years.

It is an election year, we know. And though not as present in the public eye, it is a Farm Bill year. The Farm Bill, a far-reaching and perhaps esoteric piece of legislature that is renewed every five years impacts everything from the food we eat, the land on which it is grown, entitlement programs and international food aid. Since its inception, the Farm Bill, has been primarily influenced by lobbyists and politicians despite its affecting millions of citizens. Yet a voice of activism and concern has been raised in the Jewish community, led by American Jewish World Service (AJWS). In an effort to leverage our community’s influence in Washington, a petition is being circulated to tell Congress that we want a just Farm Bill that is aligned with our values.

I imagine Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel would be proud; in the spirit of Tu B’Shvat, our community walking outside, looking around, noticing that something is not right here. Let this be a Tu B’Shvat of celebration of the natural world and an opportunity to ensure its health.

If you are interested in signing the AJWS Farm Bill Petition, a link can be found on http://ajws.org/get_involved/take_action.html