On Sunday evening, ט”ו בשבת (the 15th of Shevat) in the Jewish calendar, we will celebrate the festival of Tu Bisvhat: The New Year of the Trees! As a gift to the trees, this week’s parshah includes an important teaching about caring for the environment.
Parshat Beshalach recounts the departure of Bnai Israel from Mitzrayim. Our middah—”Take only what you need”—was an important message for the newly freed people. As they travelled through the desert, they received “manna”: heavenly food from God. They were instructed to collect only as much of it as they could eat—no more and no less. Those who took more than what they needed discovered that their leftovers rotted. Thus, they learned that free people should also seek to free themselves from the enslaving human impulse to hoard.
At Heschel, we celebrate Tu Bisvhat by conducting a beautiful Tu Bisvhat Seder that celebrates the seasons, shivat haminim (the seven species of Eretz Israel), diverse symbolic fruits, and the New Year of the Trees.
We also see Tu Bisvhat as an opportunity to reinforce our commitment to environmental stewardship. We learn that we have the right to take from the earth what we need to live and be satisfied; we are not required by Judaism to be ascetics. At the same time, we are obligated to preserve the world in good condition for our children, grandchildren, and future generations. This means that we need to manage our inclination to take more than what we need.
A well-known Talmudic tale teaches about the character Choni Hameagel, who once saw an elderly person planting a carob tree. Choni asked the person: “Why do you plant a carob tree that will only give fruit in seventy years—long after you will be gone?” The person replied: “When I arrived in this world, I found carob trees that my ancestors planted. I want my children to find them after I am gone too.”
This Shabbat, may we all contemplate the value of trees and the self-discipline of taking “only what we need” so that we can leave behind a sustainable world for future generations.