Tu B’Shevat 2010, or perhaps more appropriately 5770, begins at sunset on the 29th of January, which corresponds to the 15th of the month of Shevat in the Hebrew calendar. Although little observed since the time of the Temple, Tu B’Shevat is a beautiful day which rounds out the cycle of four New Years celebrations in Jewish tradition. In fact, taken together, the four-part cycle is a lesson in the four aspects of Jewish spiritual identity which are meant to be fully integrated into our lives: the national, the religious, the universally human, and the natural.
The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) records the fact that there are four distinct New Years in the Jewish calendar: “And there are four New Year dates — The first of Nisan – New Year for kings and festivals – The first of Elul – New Year for animal tithes. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishrei. – The first of Tishrei- new year for calculation of the calendar, sabbatical years and jubilees, for planting and sowing – The first of Shevat – new year for trees, according to the school of Shamai; The school of Hillel say: the fifteenth of Shevat”
Now what does all that mean?
Nisan marks the month of national Jewish identity, having to do with Kings, the festivals, and not accidentally, is the month in which the Exodus occurred and Jewish people set out into the world as a nation for the first time.
Elul is the month from which tithes are measured. This is a technical issue related to when animals are born and when the Temple got its due. Bottom line, this marker ties people to the central religious institutions of their lives. Rather than insisting that religion is all, or that spiritual is good but religion is bad, as many of us find ourselves doing, this Mishna reminds us that religion is crucial, but only a part of the “all” to which we aspire.
Tishrei celebrates our shared humanity. It’s the month during which we proclaim liberty throughout the land through then institution of sabbatical years and the Jubilee, which give all people, regardless of race or class, a second chance at a new life. It’s also the month of Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the birth of the first humans, a reminds us that we are all connected to one another.
And finally, there is Shevat, at the peak of which we celebrate the sacredness of nature and its gifts. Having been separated from the land for a very long time, first by exile and then by laws which sought to remind Jews of our tenuous existence among our gentile hosts, we often lost touch with this kind of sacredness. But between the return to Israel and the increasing ecological awareness, this holiday is making a real comeback.
Ultimately, it’s the combination of all four of these New Years which I find most compelling. In observing each of them, I am also reminded of all of them – that I am always engaged in a four-part celebration, and must give each its due measure of respect. I am a part of a national body called the people of Israel, the Jews. I am also a human being, part of a universal community which transcends the national one. I am committed to the physical institutions of a particular faith, and I am also obligated to see the holiness of a natural world which is larger than any particular faith.
It’s all about balance, and in a world which may need that more than anything else, that’s a gift. So plant a tree in Israel, or your own backyard. Eat a piece of fruit which is one of seven species of produce symbolizing the bounty of the Promised Land, or do something which helps assure that we not squander the promise of the natural resources of the land in which we live. It’s all good, and it’s all part of the four-part symphony which leads to spiritually fulfilling lives — the symphony which integrates the many identities we have and the multiple ways we realize their beauty.