Sundown Friday night marks the beginning of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for trees. In shuls across the region, Jews mark the occasion in a variety of ways, many recreating the seder invented by those clever kabbalists in Tzfat 500 years ago, drinking four glasses of wine that progress from winter white to the deep red of summer.
But what if you did something completely new and radically refreshing? What if you paused for a moment to reflect on the Torah of nature?
As a naturalist who has spent my career teaching in nature about nature, there is a profound Torah that pours out of nature, like water from Moses’ rock.
Take the squirrel, for example, that reviled rodent unwelcome at bird feeders. Even the squirrel is a teacher, a furry Zen master. Squirrels love seeds of all kinds, especially acorns, beech nuts, walnuts. But every acorn a squirrel eats is an oak tree that never grows. So squirrels eat their future: If squirrels get too good at devouring seeds, one day there will be no trees. And no trees, no squirrels.
But squirrels also spend the autumn anxiously hiding nuts in every nook and cranny they can find so their neighbors don’t discover them, burying them here and there across the forest floor. While blessed with a keen nose that can sniff out an acorn under six feet of snow, squirrels bury way more acorns than they’ll ever need. Spring comes, the ground thaws, sunlight warms the soil, and new oak trees sprout from seeds planted by overzealous squirrels.
In fact, most of the acorns that sprout, ironically, are ones planted by squirrels, acorns that were supposed to be eaten later. Acorns not planted by a squirrel tend to sit on the forest floor and get eaten. Or simply rot.
Likewise caterpillars. Plant-devouring maniacs, caterpillars graze entire landscapes, sometimes killing or compromising the host plant. I once saw a group of Monarch caterpillars skeletonize a whole garden of milkweed plants. Not a very sustainable lifestyle. But caterpillars suddenly, magically, transform into adult butterflies with no mouthparts whatsoever for eating solid food, only coiled straws for sipping.
Butterflies drink the world, flitting from flower to flower in search of nectar, and in the act of flitting accidentally transfer pollen from one flower to the next, an aerial mea culpa that allows for the next generation of seeds. Caterpillars take. But butterflies give back, restoring the systems that sustain them.
Humans are remarkable caterpillars. We take — no, demand — from the world the resources that sustain us, draining river systems, cutting down forests, melting glaciers, overstuffing landfills, fracking entire landscapes, covering deserts in “sustainable” solar arrays, poaching gorillas and rhinos, bulldozing mountaintops into pristine valleys, turning million-year-old oil into plastics used for milliseconds and then tossing them away, paving paradise.
We still hunt whales, if you can believe that.
The Torah of nature teaches that caterpillars can only eat the way they do because they’re balanced in perfect symmetry by their adult counterparts. That’s the lesson of Tu B’Shevat: how more of us, even whole nations of us, can mature into butterflies, organisms that give back to the environment. Even that stupid, annoying squirrel knows this. You can’t just take what you want; you occasionally have to put stuff back.
Our job this Tu B’Shevat, and always, is to plant seeds. Bury metaphorical acorns. Pollinate flowers. Do green works that bring peace — shalom, wholeness — to the natural world. End the killing. Cool the climate.
“It is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it,” we sing on Shabbat as the Torah is put away, literally referring to Torah itself as a tree. Yes, we should hold fast to Torah. But equally important, we should hold fast to the tree. As Torah sustains us spiritually, the tree sustains us physically, nourishes us. And that tree is in trouble, and needs us desperately.
As we gather in synagogues this Shabbat, we’ll read how the Israelites crossed the mitzrayim, literally, the “narrow place” of Egypt. The environment is just one narrow place of many we need to cross these days, for the Tree of Life is dying. And only butterflies can bring it back.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, where he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.