This Sabbath is also Tu B’Shevat, the new year for trees. It’s a quiet little holiday, nestled in the lull between Hanukkah and Purim, little noticed by any but Orthodox Jews, much in the way trees themselves can quietly fade into the background unless you take the time to notice them. Trees don’t demand attention often, unlike things lit on fire or noisemakers.
Trees, however, are not without consequence, often serving as metaphors for all kinds of things in the Torah. Where I live now, the trees fit the landscape. Further south, there are mighty forests in the temperate rainforest style, their thick trunks most often gathering moss and their canopies lush in summertime. Further to the north and up higher in the mountains closer, there are the scrubby arboreal pines stubbornly clinging to life, thinning as they give way to tundra, where no trees can grow. I live somewhere in between. Our trees are thin so that their branches do not break under the heavy snow. Aspens and cottonwoods along with spruce trees mix with the papery-barked birch trees. Today, they stand dormant, covered in frost and snow, but in the summer, they quickly put out leaves to soak up the brief summer with its nearly endless days of sun and they just as quickly turn beautiful yellows and drop their leaves, only the pine trees keeping their needles.
A coworker once complained over the lack of “real” trees, meaning the big, fluffy trees he remembered from a childhood in Oregon. I think these trees, with their modest, delicate beauty, are just as lovely as any.
Trees are quiet companions, welcoming all friendship equally, from scampering squirrels to mighty moose gnawing on their branches. They are also wonderful listeners to those who like to walk in the woods. I’ve always found comfort in the company of trees. As a child, I would scramble up their branches even with scratches and brambles. Later, I would read or nap in their dappled shade. I still go hiking in the woods when my spirit needs refreshed or my mind needs quieted. Their deep roots remind me to stay grounded in a shifting world. Their slow growth teaches me patience. You can’t rush a tree to grow and that’s a good reminder when I’m frustrated at my own pace of growth. Their branches reach up to G-d in prayer for rain and he hears them.
Sadly, bad things can also happen to these gentle giants, just as tragedy can befall us.
In the past two summers, due to a lack of snow in winter, wildfires have plagued the forests where I live. Even the oldest, proudest tree can’t withstand them and they leave black scars across the land. Even here, there’s a lesson as these fires, destructive and painful as they are, clear the underbrush and open up the land for healthy new forest to grow. Sometimes, great loss is needed to make way for new abundance and until we see the gift coming, it’s hard to comprehend why so much was taken.
I wish the trees a happy new year and a favorable judgement. I can’t really comprehend what a tree could do to be judged unfavorably, but as quiet and welcoming as they are, hopefully they wonder the same about us.