In recent decades, Tu B’Shvat has become a holiday for trees and to raise awareness and concern for our natural environment. I would like to draw attention to the ways that, at its core, Tu B’Shvat is about the intersection of the natural environment and social equity. It is indeed a holiday centered around trees, but the main point of marking this new year is to know how to divide up the trees’ produce for tithes — the various taxes/gifts that landowners must give to those who don’t have the same resources [Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1]. It isn’t just a nice idea that those who have land and wealth must share it; the early rabbis carefully thought through the details and difficulties of how the bounty of the land reaches those who need it. This has a lot to teach us at this moment when Jewish access to land in the State of Israel entails a reckoning with how we share access to resources.
One of the gifts from one’s produce is Peah — the corners of the field that are left unharvested so that the landless can come and harvest it themselves. Peah applies not only to fields but also to fruit trees. In an ideal vision, perhaps Peah allows for a level of agency, sense of ownership and connection to the land even for those who have no land. They don’t just receive a handout. They get a chance to pick the trees’ fruit themselves. Yet, sharing this unharvested produce can pose a problem. What if you can’t safely reach the fruit of the trees?
Peah is given from [the crop] while it is still connected with the soil.
But in the case of hanging vine-branches and the date-palm,
the owner brings down [the fruit] and distributes it among the poor.
הַפֵּאָה נִתֶּנֶת בִּמְחֻבָּר לַקַּרְקָע. בְּדָלִית וּבְדֶקֶל, בַּעַל הַבַּיִת מוֹרִיד וּמְחַלֵּק לָעֲנִיִּים.
[Mishnah Peah 4:1]
Commentaries explain that the problem with leaving the fruit of hanging vines and date palms is that they are too dangerous to access without proper equipment (Bartenura). So for these, the owner has an obligation to ensure that the bounty is properly distributed. Otherwise, the “gift” may become a hazard. This specific Mishnah about sharing our access to the beautiful gifts of trees teaches us that sometimes even our willingness to let go of and share our wealth isn’t enough; that good intentions may be wasted, or even destructive, if we haven’t fully thought through the issue of access.
Taking this extra step of harvesting and distributing Peah is not usually required of the owner. The Mishnah goes on to say that even if there is a large public demand that the owner do so, it is ignored in situations where the harvest is easily accessible. Yet, in the case of inaccessible fruit the Mishnah says clearly:
With hanging vine-branches and date-palm trees it is not so;
[e]ven if ninety-nine [of the poor] say [to the owner] to leave it in the field and one says to distribute it, this latter is listened to, since he spoke in accordance with the halakhah.
:בְּדָלִית וּבְדֶקֶל אֵינוֹ כֵן, אֲפִלּוּ תִשְׁעִים וְתִשְׁעָה אוֹמְרִים לָבוֹז וְאֶחָד אוֹמֵר לְחַלֵּק, לָזֶה שׁוֹמְעִין, שֶׁאָמַר כַּהֲלָכָה
[Mishnah Peah 4:2]
We live in a world where transactional responsibilities are largely dictated by market forces, and in that mindset, one might assume that if 99% of the poor are willing to risk their safety to access dates then the owner need not make an extra effort. But the Mishnah resists this kind of market flexibility. Perhaps because it is aware of the ways that stress, uncertainty and dire circumstances can encourage people to take risks for the sake of parnassah, the Mishnah insists that the owner shoulder the burden of getting these items safely to those in need.
As we celebrate Tu B’Shvat this year, let’s remember that we are not allowed just to enjoy the bounty of the land. All of the blessings we receive from the land depend on careful deliberation and follow through to ensure that these blessings are not only shared, but shared in accessible ways with those whose access to the crops may be riddled with obstacles and hazards.
This involves two steps. First, we have to be ready to let go of something we might think is “ours.” Letting go of a claim to some fruit — or, in the case of the modern state of Israel, some land — is not enough. In fact, it is fraught with danger. We might feel like we’ve done our part and relinquish any further responsibility when the outcome is that people get little or are worse off for trying to make do with an impossible situation. Will the land and resources we are ready to share be safely accessible? When we think of a two-state solution, we have to be ready not only to give up a claim on land but to ensure that it can support a viable and safe existence for the Palestinian people. Both are hard and necessary. Going part way is not an option. May we have the courage and fortitude to live up to our most fundamental obligations.
Rabbi Aviva Richman is Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar, and has been on the faculty since 2010. A graduate of Oberlin College, she studied in the Pardes Kollel and the Drisha Scholars’ Circle, and was ordained by Rabbi Danny Landes. She completed a doctorate in Talmud at NYU. Her interests include Talmud, Halakhah, Midrash, and gender, and a healthy dose of niggunim.
Tu B’Shvat and Environmental Activism
Rabbi Nathan Martin
Tu B’Shvat traditionally focuses on the method of assigning fruit trees’ ages for the purpose of the donation of first fruits, or on understanding trees as a vehicle for divine flow and connection into our world. As noted, however, in more contemporary times the holiday focuses, for many, on the planting of trees in Israel. More generally, this is a moment for us to focus on environmental activism.
This need for active environmental policy change in an era of a warming climate is critical. The effects of the climate crisis in the Middle East are acute — off the charts compared to some other parts of the world. An Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection analysis suggests that there will be at least a 10% drop in precipitation in this century, and possibly more. Having Israelis, Palestinians and other neighbors in the region find common ground to develop policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase adaptation and resilience are necessary parts of our peace-building work.
The Midrash Vayikra Rabbah talks about how one individual can cause everyone pain. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai likens such collective damage to a boat filled with people and one drills a hole under his seat thereby dooming them all [Vayikra Rabbah 4,6]. The climate crisis has threatened everyone, particularly Israelis and Palestinians who sit in the same boat. We need to work together to remove the “drill” of fossil-fuel dependent societies that are slowly making our ship uninhabitable.
Organizations on the ground, such as the Arava Institute, have taken the lead in showing what is possible as it trains emerging leaders from Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and the United States to discuss and develop new approaches to reduce energy use and improve health outcomes, such as solar-powered wastewater treatment and atmospheric water generation that reduce drawing from already strained aquifers (Arava Institute 2019/20 Annual Report).
Tu B’Shvat is particularly a time to acknowledge this vulnerability. As American Jews, we have the capacity — particularly now with a new administration that understands the seriousness of our environmental predicament — to advocate for increasing grassroots Israeli/Palestinian environmental collaboration to promote policies that can help “green” peace efforts by investing in projects that promote health, resilience and clean energy. Peace is more than just an absence of hostilities; it is an opportunity to revise, heal, and transform societies for the better.
At the final cup of the Tu B’Shvat Seder, the ingathering of the Fall harvest, Rabbi Ellen Bernstein writes that just as plants are preparing seeds for the next cycle of nature, “we too must nourish the world for the next generation” and just as the natural world changes and evolves, we too must evolve beyond the seemingly intractable conflicts that limit our potential and our imaginations.
May all of us who are engaged in the important work of advocating for a fair and just resolution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be inspired this Tu B’Shvat to recommit to the critical importance of planting seeds that enable the growth of a more resilient, interdependent and environmentally sustainable region.
Rabbi Nathan Martin serves as the Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Media, PA and as President of the Board of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light.