The Four Questions of Tu Bish'vat

Posted on: Monday January 30, 2012

By Lawrence Troster

On the full moon or fifteenth of the month of Shevat we celebrate the New Year of the trees. The fifteenth in Hebrew letters is tu and so we call the day Tu Bish'vat. While Tu Bish'vat has always been considered a minor festival, it has gained new significance in the last decade as a environmental celebration of the natural world. With the right questions, it can lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves and our relationship with the rest of Creation.

In the last ten years there has been a different focus given to Tu Bish'vat over previous iterations. A Kabbalistic Tu Bish'vat seder has been revived and reinterpreted in a modern environmental context. The Tu Bish'vat seder consisted of a series of blessings over various fruits and combinations of white and red wine which symbolized the seasons and God’s presence in the natural world. Given the growing importance of environmental spirituality and social action amongst Jews, it is only “natural” that the Tu Bish'vat seder should reappear.

Every seder should tell a story and  the Passover seder story is a response to the Four Questions. Here are four possible questions that I have used at a Tu Bish'vat seder:

  • What do I know about the place that I live?
  • Where do things come from?
  • How do I connect to the earth?
  • What is my purpose as a human being?

These questions which come from general environmental education, can now be used to stimulate the environmental spirituality that is expressed in a Tu Bish'vat seder. Ask the questions and ask people to answer them instead of providing written responses. But consider the following points.

What do I know about the place that I live?

How much do we really know about the places we live? Each physical locale in which our communities are built, has a geological, biological and cultural story. This question should make us learn and tell those stories. 

Where do things come from?

Everything we eat, everything we wear or use has its roots in the natural world. Who made them? Where did the materials come from? How were they processed? What is the environmental cost of our expecting to buy any product from anywhere in the world delivered to our front door? What is the true cost of our being to able to eat fresh vegetables all year round? This question lead to a series of questions which should make us better appreciate our abundance and wealth.

How do I connect to the earth?

The first human was called Adam: earthling. We can never leave that original name. All that we are, all that we are made of, all that we live on, comes from the earth. We may try to separate ourselves from the rhythms of the earth. We may heat and air condition our houses and cars, but we cannot live outside the earth. We may shape the earth but we can never completely control it. We belong to the earth, the earth does not belong to us.

What is my purpose as a human being?

What is the purpose of a tree? A tree does not live to be a resource. It has a worth and a meaning in Creation beyond our needs. And so we have a purpose and a worth beyond our roles as producers and consumers. Is there some greater good for humanity? This questions calls upon us to recognize our place in the Order of Creation. Like the trees, we are voices in that great choir of life that praises with its every breath the Creator of the Universe.