Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner
Watching a tree transform from dormancy to blooming is an invigorating experience. It offers us hope for renewal, a new beginning. We are literally watching nature’s promise of a better year.
And that is what we need right now – a reason to believe that our New Year can, and will, be better than 2020.
A friend recently reminded me that we are all incredibly strong. That’s true, but our strength needs to be nourished and coaxed out of us. Our Jewish calendar offers a source for strength and inspiration – Tu B’Shevat – the New Year of the Trees.
In Israel, on the 15th of Shevat, the sap begins to rise inside trees. Buds begin to form; signs of new life and new beginnings emerge. This is what I embrace each year when Tu B’Shevat rolls around. Amid the chill of winter (and oftentimes snow, before moving to Louisville), I find my soul and mood are elevated just by knowing that spring is on its way. Truthfully, this holiday does more for me than Groundhog Day. (Sorry, Punxsutawney Phil.)
Renewal is a recurring theme in our tradition. Shabbat, our most important holiday, which we celebrate each week, is a remembrance of G-d’s work of creation. When we pray in the morning and at night, we praise G-d for renewing creation daily (Yotzer Or and Ma’ariv Aravim).
On Rosh HaShanah, we celebrate the creation of the world. And on Tu B’Shevat, we celebrate the renewal of trees (and by extension, nature). In the kabbalistic tradition, Tu B’Shevat is closely linked with the renewal of the flow of divine energy.
I need divine energy right now, to renew my spiritual, physical, emotional and mental self; perhaps you can relate. We have all been through much since March 2020. You have lived through this challenging period, so I know I don’t have to spell out what has made things so difficult; but let’s remember the 420,000-plus deaths in our country, overrun hospitals and ICUs, and health care providers who are beyond exhausted.
Add social unrest, racial inequality, political madness, frustration over the slow distribution of the COVID vaccines and an attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the need for renewal comes into stark focus.
While we can’t change what has occurred, we can change our outlook. We can focus on the beauty of G-d’s world. We can rejoice in knowing that new life is sprouting in eretz Yisrael.
By turning toward the rebirth of nature, we can rejuvenate ourselves, too. As it says in the Tu B’Shevat Haggadah, published by the CCAR Press and attributed to Rabbi Israel of Tshortokov:
Israel was likened to a tree which stands naked and frozen in winter. Storms cause the tree to sway and threaten to uproot it. Its situation seems to be without any hope. But even at the height of winter, the tree begins to draw renewed life from the depths of the earth. So it is with Israel: they are put to suffering, but in the depths of darkness the light of redemption is ignited.”
Renewal, rebirth, revival, regeneration – these are all themes of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees. May it also be so for us, our loved ones and all G-d’s children in the year just begun.
(Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner is the spiritual leader of Temple Shalom.)