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Toward Shabbat: Beshalah

Beginning Sunday evening and into Monday, we will celebrate Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees. One of four different dates marking a new year in the Jewish calendar, this holiday was originally linked to the tithing of fruits in ancient Israel and was largely forgotten after the destruction of the Temple. In the 16th century, however, kabbalists in Tzfat, led by Rabbi Isaac Luria, revived Tu Bishvat and created a mystical, multi-sensory seder ritual to celebrate trees and the Tree of Life itself. In the late 19th-early 20th century, the Zionist movement created yet another new ritual for Tu Bishvat: the planting of trees in the Land of Israel. For modern Jews around the world, this practice restored a physical connection to an ancient practice and an ancient land.

Contemporary Tu Bishvat celebrations, particularly in the United States, now often include yet another ritual innovation: a call to action for climate justice. As this year’s Hazon Tu Bishvat Haggadah states, “it is one thing to acknowledge and celebrate the fruit which comes from trees and it is a whole other level to consider the trees’ current state in a world of deforestation and climate disaster.”

For many of us, the need to address climate change seems obvious and yet, all too often, the crisis seems slow-moving and distant from the realities of our daily lives. We lack the motivation to act because we aren’t sure what one individual can do; we don’t know what, if anything, will make a difference and we don’t feel an immediate, personal threat. In his recent book We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, Jonathan Safran Foer argues that individual actions, when taken collectively, are essential to creating change. He writes:

Social change, much like climate change, is caused by multiple chain reactions that occur simultaneously. Both cause, and are caused by, feedback loops. No single factor can be credited for a hurricane, drought, or wildfire, just as no single factor can be credited for a decline in cigarette smoking—and yet in all cases, every factor is significant. When a radical change is needed, many argue that it is impossible for individual actions to incite it, so it’s futile for anyone to try. This is exactly the opposite of the truth: the impotence of individual action is a reason for everyone to try…

Polio couldn’t have been cured without someone inventing a vaccine—that required an architecture of support (funding from the March of Dimes) and knowledge (Jonas Salk’s medical breakthrough). But that vaccine couldn’t have been approved without a wave of polio pioneers volunteering for a trial—their feelings were irrelevant; it was their participation in the collective action that allowed the cure to be brought to the public. And that approved vaccine would have been worthless if it had not become a social contagion, and therefore a norm—its success was the result of both top-down publicity campaigns and grassroots advocacy. Who cured polio? No one did. Everyone did. 

To meet the urgency of the moment and address the climate crisis we now face, we as individuals must take it upon ourselves to commit to seemingly small changes that have the potential to create a powerful collective impact. Now is the time to set aside our feelings of doubt or overwhelm. Now is the time to act.

This Tu Bishvat, let us take in the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: “If you believe that you have the ability to destroy, then believe that you have the ability to fix.”