Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Happy New Year To Trees Everywhere


It snowed this week.

You might have noticed.

It snowed and all the big grown up things in the world froze up, clammed up and shut up.

And all the young things in the world, jumped up, ran out and played.


It’s Tu B’Shvat tomorrow night.

The Jewish New Year for Trees, so I thought, this week, I would look at a Jewish relationship with nature, with weather and with nature.


Psalm 148, one of the daily repeated Psalms contains this beautiful piece of poetry.


3. Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you stars of light.

4. Praise him, heavens of heavens, and you waters that are above the heavens.

5. Let them praise the name of the Lord; for he commanded, and they were created.

6. And he established them for ever and ever; he has made a decree which shall not pass.

7. Praise the Lord from the earth, you crocodiles, and all deeps;

8. Fire, and hail; snow, and vapors; stormy wind fulfilling his word;

9. Mountains, and all hills; fruitful trees, and all cedars;

10. Beasts, and all cattle; creeping things, and winged birds;

11. Kings of the earth, and all peoples; princes, and all judges of the earth;

12. Young men and also virgins; old men, and children;

13. Let them praise the name of the Lord; for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above the earth and heaven.


I feel two things reading this Psalm.

One is the sense that it is all God.

Indeed we have an idiomatic term for earthquakes, hurricanes and the like, we call them Acts of God, even the supposed atheists.

Weather is God’s will made manifest in the world.

To appreciate the weather is to appreciate God’s power, might


The other thing is how violent all the weather is.

God seems to like His weather bold, and we are encouraged to be bold in return -

Halelu btziltzelei shema, halelu btziltzelie truah – praise Him with crashing cymbals and clanging cymbals.[1]

The weather is noisy and scary, it is supposed to be scary.

I’m reminded of God’s answer to Job.

Job challenges God’s justice and ultimately God responds by directing Job’s attention to the weather – to nature, to the violent power of nature.

26. Behold, God is great, and we know him not, the number of his years is unsearchable.

27. For when he draws up small drops of water; they are distilled into a stream of rain;

28. Which the clouds drop and pour down on man abundantly.

29. Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, or the noise of his tabernacle?

30. Behold, he spreads his light upon it, and covers the roots of the sea.

31. For by these he judges the people; he gives food in abundance.

32. He covers his hands with the lightning, and commands it where it shall strike.

33. The noise of the storm tells of it, the cattle also of the rising tempest.


The purpose of weather is to remind us that we are no in control.

To remind us that there is a power beyond us, beyond our human grasping.

We do not run the world entirely according to our own fiat.


We are learning this lesson in any number of quarters at this time.

We are not the Masters of the Universe.

To be a person of faith one needs to cultivate an ability to let go.

This sense is held even in the Hebrew term for belief – emunah it means something that can be leaned on, we rest our weight against the forces of the Universe and hope, through our lives of gratitude and contribution that there will be enough there to keep up propped up in the storms.


I remember as a child at School a karate teacher doing a demonstration designed to encourage school kids to sign up for karate classes.

He invited one of the locks from the school first XV rugby team to come up on stage and punch him in the stomach as hard as he good.

Meanwhile the teacher prepared himself in the manner of one Karate school or another. The punch was thrown and thump. It landed, it looked it hurt, but the teacher got on with his presentation.

He asked the rugby palyer to throw a second punch, this time while the teacher prepared himself in the matter of Tai Chi.

The punch never seemed to land. It was thrown and the teacher bent around the onrushing fist and the energy dissipated.

It was the different, he told us, between the oak and the willow.

The oak may well withstand blows, but the truer strength, the deeper strength, was the strength of the willow.

Able to sway with the wind, withstand the storms, existing in harmony with the weather rather than fighting against it.

It’s very Jewish way to face up to the ebbs and flows of the powers that are beyond our control.

Weeping like a willow when things go wrong,

Weeping like a willow even when things seem so wonderful

Swaying like the willow in the fierce winds, bending, buckling even, but retaining the ability to spring back.

That is the strength we should wish for, as humans, as Jews.

Not the strength of the oak – the strength that is impressive right up to the moment when crack, we snap and all our strength is exposed as no more than firewood.

But the strength of the willow, shedding leaves in winter and gaining again in summer.


This is what we learn from nature.

We learn that the ebb and flow of success and failure comes like summer and winter, that joy will be followed by sadness and sadness will be followed by joy.

There is a powerful spiritually to be accessed in nature.

It’s not ‘nice,’ it’s not twee, but it is holy.

And it’s true.


Dating back, only as far as the seventeenth century is the ritual of the Tu Bishvat Seder.

A classic piece of Kabbalistic invention, smuggling some of the garb of a ‘ritual rich’ festival and adjusting them to a ritual poor moment in the calendar.

In the classic Tu B’shvat seder of the Pri Etz Hadar[2] the four cups of wine are matched to different kinds of fruit which are in turn matched to different aspects of creation; Divine creation and our own.


The journey begins with the Kabbalistic modality of Asiyah – manufacture.

Putting together bits of wood to make, for example a chair, or a table.

This is the lowest kind of creativity, we can all do it, we all do it all the time.

And this level of creation is marked with consumption of fruit with inedible shells – pomegranates, walnuts, almonds, pistachios and on the list goes.


And then the journey continues with the modality of Yetzhirah – formation.

Turning a tree trunk, for example, into planks of wood.

This is a little more sophisticated, as a kind of creation, but not by much. We can all do Yetzirah.

And this level of creation is marked with the consumption of fruit with edible exteriors, but an inedible core – olives, dates, cherries, plums and on the list goes.


And the journey continues with the modality of Briah – creation.

This is the highest form of creation we, as humans, can manage – if indeed it is within our grasp at all.

Creating a tree from a seed, an acorn, for example.

And this level of creation is marked with the consumption of fruit with no protective inedible elements at all; grapes, figs, apples.


There is a fourth level of creation – Aztilut – the creation of the thing that creates the seed that begats the tree, but that is beyond our realm, as finite humans.

There are no fruits we can eat to touch this level of creation.


But the most remarkable aspect of this matching of kinds of creative potential and power to fruit is that the most high, the most impressive acts of creation are matched not to the tough, well protected fruit, but the bare fruit, the naked fruit, as it were.

The fruit most easily bruised, damaged, destroyed.

This is the great irony and great truth about life.

The more boldy and brilliantly we live, the more we are at the mercy of our environment.

The more tiny, secure lives we lead, the better protected we are, but the less creative we are able to be.


So this is the call.

That we should our lives more like a willow,

More open to the most powerful levels of creation, willing to take risks,

Willing to bend and rebound.

Living in tune with our God and our Universe.


Shabbat shalom and Happy New Year to Trees Everywhere.

[1] Ps 150

[2] See the introduction and translation in L. Fine Judaism in Practice (Princeton 2001) p.81 & sub.

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