Tradition Today: Responsibility for the land

"God did not give us the world for us to destroy, but for us to preserve and even improve."

Tu-BiShvat (photo credit: KKL)
(photo credit: KKL)
In the early days of pioneering Zionism, secular settlers on kibbutzim and elsewhere made attempts to recast religious holidays into new molds that emphasized the return of Jews to the soil. We were no longer an urban people, but a people that had returned to the land.
Thus they emphasized the agricultural aspects of these days, singling out nature for praise and ignoring God and other religious aspects.
The most well-known of these attempts was the plethora of Passover haggadot that spoke about Passover solely as “the holiday of spring” and never mentioned the name of God or the idea of redemption. Shavuot, building on the idea of “first fruits,” was especially important, and was used to emphasize the harvests.
Even children born during the year were paraded as “first fruits,” and still are in some places. Obviously, the aspect to the giving of the Torah was put aside.
Few if any of these attempts have truly succeeded in remaking the holidays as far as the general Jewish public is concerned. The one exception is Tu Bishvat, which is almost upon us. It was totally reinvented. From being the “New Year of the Trees,” it became the holiday of tree planting, something never envisioned in the traditional sources.
The success of this reinvention may be attributed to many forces, the most important being that it had Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, and all its resources behind it. In addition, it filled a real need – the reforestation of a denuded land.
Originally, Tu Bishvat was merely a date on the calendar used to calculate the new year of fruit trees. It is one of four dates mentioned in Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:1 as new years: the first of Nisan, the new year for the reign of kings and the festivals; the first of Elul, the new year for counting tithes on animals; the first of Tishrei; the new year for years; and the first of Shvat, the new year for the tithing of fruit trees. This was the ruling of the school of Shammai. The school of Hillel, however, said that it was 15 Shvat, and that became the law.
Since all the other dates are the first of the month, the time of the new moon, it is curious that Beit Hillel insisted this one be on the 15th, the full moon. Prof.
Louis Ginzberg, the great talmudist who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, once gave a lecture at the Hebrew University in which he explained this anomaly. According to Ginzberg it has an economic and social reason, based upon the fact that the Shammaites represented the richest landowners and the Hillelites represented the poorer classes. The trees in the land owned by the rich were in the lower and more fertile areas of the country, and blossomed early. The trees belonging to the poor in the higher, rockier areas did not blossom until the middle of the month.
Ginzberg also explained many other differences between the two schools on the basis of socioeconomic differences. Hence, the anomaly of a “new year” that begins on the 15th of the month.
Concerning the remaking of Tu Bishvat, before the Zionists, Kabbalists in the 16th century had instituted many other customs for that day, including the eating of fruits and even a Tu Bishvat Seder, emphasizing the texts in our tradition that speak about trees. Thus, inserting the idea of planting trees was a relatively easy step to take.
Tu Bishvat now serves to call our attention not only to trees, but to nature in general. By celebrating the fruits of this land, it reminds us of the blessing we have in dwelling in a rich and fertile place. At the same time, it also calls upon us to do whatever has to be done to preserve the earth, the soil and the fragile environment in which we live.
The secular Zionists were right about the fact that in having a land of our own, we should be increasingly aware of the blessing of the land and of the need to preserve it. We may not all be farmers and tillers of the soil, but we are all benefactors of the good earth that is ours – and therefore, are all responsible to preserve it. Secularists may think that this has nothing to do with religion, but believers see the land as a gift from God the Creator, and view themselves as partners with the Creator in the work of creation.
God placed Adam in the garden “to till it and to preserve it” (Genesis 2:15).
Similarly, God did not give us the world for us to destroy, but for us to preserve and even improve – and that is what Tu Bishvat should mean to us today.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a twotime winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).