In my junior year of college, I studied abroad in Israel at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, and lived on Kibbutz Keturah. The Arava Desert is one of the furthest south and most sparsely populated regions of Israel. For most of my time there, the weather was hot and dry, and the vegetation was bare and empty. We planned our free time around trips to the pool and midday naps for a respite from the heat.
As a native New Englander, seeing temperatures in the 80s during the winter months was mind-boggling. What’s more, the Arava received almost no rain during my time there - except for one memorable day, when storm clouds rolled in, the air grew dark, and the ever-present mountains on either side of the valley faded from view. The sky opened up, and we found ourselves dancing in the rare, magnificent rain.
Unlike the Arava, central Israel has two seasons: rainy in the winter, hot and dry in the summer. It never fails that right around Tu BiShvat, our holiday of the New Year of the Trees, that the almond trees begin to bloom. There are pink and white flowers as far as the eye can see, eventually blanketing the ground so fully, one almost mistakes it for snow.
Snow is a little more common than almond blossoms in the Berkshires at this time of year. Every year, we enjoy a little irony as we celebrate a new year for vegetation and growth when our trees are at their most bare. So how can we connect to this holiday, if it seemingly falls at the wrong time and place for us here?
First, we can highlight the connections to the Land of Israel that are inherent in this holiday. By sharing stories, photos, and traveling to Israel during this season, we gain firsthand knowledge of why this holiday happens when it does. While there are benefits of our winters, particularly on our pristine ski slopes and backroads, this is always a lovely time of year to trade the snow for blooming branches.
Beyond connecting us to the Land of Israel, paying attention to Tu BiShvat deepens our understanding of our sacred texts. While not mentioned in the Torah, Tu BiShvat is akin to Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, the three pilgrimage festivals that originated as agricultural celebrations in ancient days. Further, we call our Torah Eitz chayim hi - a tree of life - so the connection between trees, Tu BiShvat, and Torah is strong on many levels.
Like its fellow minor holiday, Chanukah, Tu BiShvat falls at one of the darkest times of the year. For Jews throughout the world, Tu BiShvat has taken on significance as a harbinger of spring, even if that season is still quite far off. It is a holiday that provides a reason to come out of the protective cocoon of our homes and join together in celebration and community. It is a holiday of hope, appreciation, and looking toward a brighter future.
Many communities move beyond Tu BiShvat’s agricultural association, particularly in parts of the world where spring is nowhere nearby. However, the connection to the environment, nature, and to caring for our earth is one that we can explore on this holiday. We can bring a modern urgency to the ritual and spiritual underpinnings of this day. Even if you can’t enjoy the shade of the Tanglewood trees or pick fresh produce from your garden on Tu BiShvat in the Berkshires, I encourage you to connect with our environment through advocacy on awareness at this season.
One way that I express the values of Tu BiShvat is by serving as a volunteer for Berkshire Bounty. One out of ten people in Berkshire County and all of Western Massachusetts suffer food insecurity, which means they are hungry or at risk of being hungry. Berkshire Bounty collects excess fresh produce, baked goods, and meats from supermarkets, farms, and owners of fruit-bearing trees. Each week, I and many other volunteers throughout the county deliver that food to pantries and other distribution organizations in South County and Pittsfield. By collecting food that is beyond the sell-by date at our local grocery stores, we are also practicing the value of Bal Taschit - do not waste. The environmental impact of Berkshire Bounty is another way that this incredible organization is having an effect on our local community and on our world.
I wish you a joyful, meaningful, and inspiring Tu BiShvat - whatever the weather, wherever you celebrate it!
Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch is the spiritual leader of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield.