Rabbi Reflection: The Wisdom of the Trees

By Rabbi Jodie Gordon / Hevreh of Southern Berkshire

Hanging on the door to my office is a print of a poem called “Advice from a Tree” by Ilan Shamir, which was given to me by a congregant. It reads:

Dear Friend,

Stand Tall and Proud

Sink your roots deeply into the Earth

Reflect the light of a greater source

Think long term

Go out on a limb

Remember your place among all living beings

Embrace with joy the changing seasons

For each yields its own abundance

The Energy and Birth of Spring

The Growth and Contentment of Summer

The Wisdom to let go of leaves in the Fall

The Rest and Quiet Renewal of Winter

Feel the wind and the sun

And delight in their presence

Look up at the moon that shines down upon you

And the mystery of the stars at night.

Seek nourishment from the good things in life

Simple pleasures

Earth, fresh air, light

Be content with your natural beauty

Drink plenty of water

Let your limbs sway and dance in the breezes

Be flexible

Remember your roots

Enjoy the view!

This month, as the chill of winter settles in, I can’t help but reach for that wisdom of the trees, which is also wisely embedded in our tradition. Who among us couldn’t benefit from standing a bit taller, letting our roots sink deeply into the Earth? I can imagine many of us could stand to seek nourishment from the simple pleasures of earth, fresh air, light – and certainly from that reminder to drink plenty of water, for me a point well taken as I nurse my third cup of coffee of the day.

Perhaps, though, there is something particular about this timing that can sustain us through what many of us have anticipated as a “long hard winter,” now almost a full year into the pandemic, as we continue to isolate and distance ourselves from the people, the places, and the activities that normally sustain us.

This month, as the Hebrew calendar turns to the month of Shevat, we mark yet another new year: the new year of the trees, also known as Tu BiShevat. Here in the frosty Northeast, this holiday may sometimes elicit a cynical response –  the birthday of the trees? While they are bare and weighted down with icicles rather than blooms and blossoms? Certainly, were we able to celebrate across the ocean in the Land of Israel, this holiday would be marked with the brilliant flowering of pink almond blossoms, dotting the landscape with hopeful beauty.

Tu BiShevat, celebrated on the 15th of the month of Shevat, invites us to consider that ‘advice from a trees’ more deeply. What is our place in the world, and how do we nurture and appreciate our surroundings? How are we willing to change to protect our natural landscape?

I am reminded of a teaching from Rabbi Jill Hammer, who offers beautiful wisdom for this season of winter when we turn inward and spend so much time waiting. She points out that the winter season comprising the Hebrew months of Tevet, Shevat, and Adar is also a season that contains no pilgrimage festivals. After all, in the cold of winter, you can’t travel, so you stay put. Hammer teaches: “These months fall during a time that the Sages describe as yemot hageshamim—or, the ‘days of rain,’ when the skies dim and thoughts turn inward.”  

Perhaps, like me, you have spent quite a bit of time over these past ten months with your thoughts turned inward. This winter’s spiritual challenge is that it comes on the heels of a difficult and unusual autumn, summer, and spring.  Rabbi Hammer mines Torah for wisdom to address this very situation, asking, “What did the Israelites do when they were waiting? What spiritual habits brought them comfort and sustenance when they were in the desert, awaiting God’s presence?”

In this time of looking inward, Hammer suggests, the Israelites were moved to make themselves their own “inner sanctuaries.” This conscious act of personal spiritual work was necessary for the Israelites to be ready to receive God’s presence.  For the Israelites, and for us, this winter will be a time apart, marked by a sense of anticipation. And, in that quiet time of inner preparation, Jewish time offers us spiritual reinforcement.

As Rabbi Hammer points out, though the winter offers no pilgrimage festivals, in our time, we find three holidays marking this period of winter months: Chanukah, Tu BiShevat, and Purim. These three holidays arrive in the midst of winter to remind us of certain things that may aid us in our time of waiting. In the celebration of those holidays, we are reminded of miracles. We are reminded that blossoming is celebrated long after planting, and we are reminded that joy and laughter can be healing.  Thus, what may feel like a period of spiritual dormancy is actually a period of subtle growth.

My hope for each of us is that we will find meaning in the wisdom of this season, and sustenance in that ‘advice from the trees.’

Rabbi Jodie Gordon is a rabbi and the director of education at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington.

Note on the Illustration: The illustration is of the seven species of the Holy Land described in the Torah, here depicted in a 1958 set of Israeli stamps by Zvi Narkiss.