President’s March 2023 Column

Tu B’Shevat: Our Holiday – Your Goal

This month we celebrated Tu B’Shevat – a date that appears on our Jewish calendars. But what is this holiday and what significance may we discover? It comes at a special time, this holiday that finds meaning with trees, particular fruit bearing trees. Interesting that this  man-made date is not the season trees bear fruit, rather the suggested time to plant (in Israel). It was meant as a way to designate a tree’s “birthdate” as a farmer had to wait 3 years before harvesting the fruit. The holiday was established by Mishnah writing Rabbis rather than in the Torah itself. So, in effect, man created the holiday to help track time.

Time itself is elusive – once you try to hold on to a moment of time it escapes. Planting a tree is one way to preserve time, deepen our roots, and to provide for future generations. This year’s holiday happened to fall on my late father’s birthday, and today I pen this column on my own birthday. So, this year this “birthday holiday” has larger personal significance to me for another reason.

Both modern Jews of Israel and the ancient mystics found symbolism with ecology and care for our planet connected to Tu B’Shevat. As a further connection to our planet, Diane and I found ourselves in the rain forests of Costa Rica this month, which helps explains why this column appears after the holiday itself. Our trip to this Central American country was initiated to join a group of leaders who are seeking ways to help sustain our planet. To develop a world where population and temperature are growing is not limited to environment, but also includes all 17 (SDG) “Sustainable Development Goals” the United Nations has established in 2015. I invite you to look at the list that follows to find at least one item, or more that tugs at you – that you also feel is important.

Costa Rica itself being only a third the size of Iowa, while it is home to 5% of the world’s diversity of all life on this planet. Let this sink in a bit. We saw familiar and unique animals, birds, insects, trees too numerous to list them all here. Why is this diversity of nature in such a small country? It rests in the intersection of the Pangaea continental drift, and enjoys year-long warm weather along with unique microenvironments of brackish and fresh water. This alone will not preserve all that we were so blessed to witness. It also takes a society to value the land’s resources. In the 70’s the country took drastic steps to repair the destruction of 65% of its forests and today over a quarter of its land is preserved in parks and protected areas. Children are taught the importance of nature. Even to be a licensed tour guide one must study their natural environment. We never saw pollution even within the cities or on their beaches. The point here — it was not always this way. The society took active steps to change what had occurred and taught their youth these values. I believe this is a Tu B’Shevat story we are fortunate to be witnessing in our lifetime. As a Jewish community, can we do anything to replicate this? How can we make small changes in our lives – even if it’s just to use a bit less plastic? What goal can you pay more attention to, and in turn, teach those within your circle of influence?

As sentient beings, as Americans, and Jews, we need to hear this call to protect our planet and the values of human dignity towards one another. Humans have cultivated land for sustenance for over 12,000 years. As we think about the resources that drive modern society, we must think also about how to preserve such quality of life beyond the next generation and think about the thousands of years that come after us. We inherited a rich culture and land. Each of us can play a role. Though it be large it is not insurmountable.

“You are not required to finish [this] work, yet neither are you permitted to cease from it.” This is from “The Ethics of the Fathers” wisdom from the Jewish Talmudic sage Rabbi Tarfon, who lived and taught 2,000 years ago.

Robert Becker