01/14/2013 04:25 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2013

Tu Bishvat: Rebirthing Trees and the Tree of Life

This is a dark and dangerous time for the web of life on Planet Earth. It is also the dark and wintry time in the Northern Hemisphere of Mother Earth. Yet it is exactly at this time every year, the Jewish mystics reminded us, that trees not only renew their life but call on us to renew our lives, our energy and our commitment to their rebirth -- and indeed the rebirth of all God's abundance. Of God's Own Self.

And so we have a festival, the one most Jews call Tu Bishvat (15th day, the full moon, of the midwinter Jewish "moonth" of Shvat). It will begin Friday evening, Jan. 25. (Some call it "Yah Bishvat," playing on the letters that mean both the number "15" and the Name of God, "the Breath of Life.")

There is a Seder, a sacred meal, for Tu Bishvat, similar to the one for Passover. But this Seder is not built on the story of a specifically Jewish event (unlike the Passover Seder, which is built on the Exodus of ancient Israelites). It is instead grown from the rhythms of the Earth. So people of all spiritual traditions will find space for themselves.

The Tu Bishvat Seder is focused on four kinds of nuts and fruit and four different colors of wine. Each of these "fours" is connected with the four worlds of Jewish mysticism; the four elements of earth, water, air and fire; and the four seasons of the year.

Below you will find suggestions for how to make this Seder into a joyful gathering that sings, eats, shmoozes -- and also learns and acts to protect and heal our Earth.

One of the Four Worlds is "Creative Intellect and Learning." Let us start there:

The fullest unfolding of the meaning of this festival -- with its roots in social justice, its sturdy trunk in the mystical Kabbalah, and its flowering in commitment to healing our deeply wounded Earth -- is a 500-page comprehensive anthology on Tu Bishvat and trees in Jewish lore and learning that was published in 1999 by the Jewish Publication Society. It is called "Trees, Earth, and Torah" (you can purchase the volume from JPS by clicking here).

It was edited by three of us: Ari Elon, an adventurous Israeli Talmud scholar who edited the essays by Israeli teachers and also wrote an extraordinary essay for the volume on the spiritual meanings of Tu Bishvat/Yah Bishvat; Rabbi Naomi Mara Hyman, who also wrote a profound midrash on the magnificent redwood trees as the eytzim ("trees" or "wooden poles") upon which the spiral of Earth's great Torah Scroll is wound; and me. (I both edited the volume as a whole and wrote a connective essay on the changes in the spiritual meaning and practice of Tu Bishvat over the millennia.)

"Trees, Earth, and Torah" is organized like a tree -- roots, trunk, branches, fruit, seed -- in eight sections called "Roots: Biblical Judaism in the Land of Israel"; "The Trunk: Rabbinic Judaism"; "Branches: Kabbalah and Hasidism"; "Branches: Zionism and the Land of Israel"; "Branches: Eco-Judaism"; "Fruit of the Lovely Tree: Tu B'Shvat Itself" and "Seeds: Sources for Learning and Doing."

Among the 60-plus entries are the first English translation (done by Miles Krassen) of Pri Eytz Hadar, the classic source of the original Tu Bishvat Seder from the kabbalists of the town of Safed or Tsfat; a medieval Amidah that focuses on blessings for trees; Norman Lamm on the rabbinic command Bal Tashchit ("Don't Destroy, Don't Waste"); A.D. Gordon on the earthy land of Israel; poems by Zelda, Marcia Falk, and Marge Piercy; several versions of the Fruitful Seder, for children and adults; Gershom Scholem on the Trees of Eden in Kabbalah; essays by Eilon Schwartz, Martin Buber, Ismar Schorsch, Rami Shapiro, David Wolfe-Blank, and Ellen Bernstein; papercuts by Judith Hankin; and many songs and recipes.

You can also find a full and varied collection of essays about Tu Bishvat at the Shalom Center.

What about the other worlds -- action, relationship and the Spirit?

The mystics celebrated this moment by creating the joyful Seder of wine, nuts and fruit, which not only give new life to the next generation but even when we eat them do not require the death of any living being. They are the foods of Eden and the Song of Songs.

The mystics chose to celebrate God's fruitfulness at exactly the time that, when the Temple still stood, was the moment for tithing (taxing) fruit and sharing it with the poor. That moment made sure the poor who owned no olive trees nevertheless got to eat the olives, crucial to a Mediterranean diet. The mystics were living not in an ivory tower or their own navels, but in earthy truth. They knew that unless abundance is shared, it withers. God withers.

Yet today, the dominant voices of American politics and media sneer at taxes and at the shared abundance -- the "common wealth" -- that taxes make possible.

And we live in a moment when those same dominant voices sneer at those who are trying to protect and heal the earth. One example: They tried to force through the Tar Sands Pipeline that would endanger and scorch the Midwestern U.S. soils and aquifers through which the Pipe would run, as well as scorching the whole planet in the CO2 that would pour out of the burning of this super-sludgy tarry oil.

Another example: They have tried to "frack" whole regions of America -- that is, pour tons of poisonous chemicalized water to shatter shale rock so as to extract natural gas hidden in the rocks. This process poisons the local air and water as well as endangering the drinking water of millions in Philadelphia and New York. Some farmers in shale-rock fracking regions of Pennsylvania have lit a match to their kitchen faucets and watched the water turn to flame as the methane in it burned.

Yet in Pennsylvania, the gas companies bought enough state legislators to pass a law forbidding towns and counties from regulating even where the tracking wells go in their own communities -- outlawing protection for schools, playgrounds, water tables.

At the national level, Big Oil and Big Coal have tried to cripple the EPA. For a clear and concise summary of the role of EPA in addressing the climate crisis, click here.

What can we do?

1. In the recent past, Jews and others have gathered to make the Seder itself a direct nonviolent action to protect the Earth in Florida, Jews gathered to protest and prevent the destruction of the Everglades. In Northern California, the "Redwood Rabbis," the Shalom Center and people of all communities gathered to protest the logging of tall and ancient redwoods for the sake of corporate profit, and illegally walked onto corporate land to plant redwood seedlings where the land had been ripped apart.

So we recommend: look in your own locale for a place where trees and the Earth more generally are being wounded. That might be a bank that invests in fracking, or coal mining. Go there or a nearby church or synagogue, learn more about the danger during the Seder itself, then picket a nearby Earth-destroying corporation.

2. To prepare for Tu Bishvat, we strongly recommend seeing three films:

One is "Gaslands," a factual report on fracking, the new and extremely problematic way of getting natural gas out of shale rock far below the earth's surface, and on the anti-fracking movement. (Click here to get a copy or arrange to screen it.)

The second is "truthful fiction": the film "Avatar" (now out on DVD). It is a deeply moving modern version of struggle between a spiritual community that treats trees and all abundance and life-forms as sacred, versus a military-corporate force that is willing to destroy people, trees and all life for the sake of wealth and power.

The third, just released, is "Promised Land," the new Hollywood movie starring Matt Damon, It is in part about fracking, and as the subtext, it is about the invasion of neighborly, citizenly small-town American life by unaccountable corporations.

If possible, gather the people who will be at your Tu Bishvat Seder to see any or all of the three with you a few days earlier. (Each of them is too long to integrate into the Seder itself.)

3. Celebrate the Seder as an act of emotional, spiritual and political connection. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans and those of secular ethical communities can join in the celebration and action. For one beautiful and powerful way of doing the Seder that you can adapt for your own use, click here.

Perhaps have a discussion at the Seder about "Avatar." How did you feel about the ex-Marine "Sully" and other Earthians "changing sides" and joining with the Na'vi to resist the Crusher invaders? Were they traitors or heroes? How did you feel about the Na'vi using violence to oppose the Crushers? Do you think nonviolent resistance would have been better? Were you surprised that Pandora's trees, animals, and birds fought the invaders? Did the story remind you at all of the biblical Exodus, when Pharaoh's arrogance brought locusts, frogs and hailstorms to rise up and shatter his power through the "Plagues"?

4. Take action at the Seder itself. Bring into the Four Elements brief policy assertions (Earth: food and forest; Water: fracking; Air: climate crisis; Fire: renewable energy.) Invite a member or two of Congress or the State Legislature to your Seder. Set aside 15 minutes during the Tu Bishvat Seder to ask all the participants to write in their own words a letter to their Senators and local newspapers supporting EPA, for the sake of our health and our planet. Collect the letters to copy them for the writers and send them to the Senators and newspapers.

Let us learn together, celebrate together, act together to rescue and heal our Earth from the Crushers in our own society.

Blessings for new growth in a wintry time, and for a fruitful year.