Tu B’Shvat and Our Connection with Trees

Trees in the forest with a path reminiscent of a heart by Jens Lelie from Unsplash

Tu B’Shvat and the New Year for the Trees

As a child, I spent a lot of time in trees. I especially liked the pine tree where two branches formed a sitting nook and the crab apple with its wide limbs and puckery fruit, but I wasn’t particular. If I could climb it, I was content.

Recently, I learned that the Jewish people honor trees during Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of the Trees. A legal rather than religious holiday, its original purpose was to provide guidelines to farmers for their tithing. Now, it’s a day to get together with friends, eat fruit, plant trees, and promote responsible stewardship of the Earth and her resources. [1]

Trees in the forest with a path reminiscent of a heart by Jens Lelie from Unsplash

It’s also a time when some authors explore a phrase from Deut 20:19: “Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?” (NRSV). According to Akiva Wolff, in “A Closer Examination of Deuteronomy 20:19,” a more accurate translation of that sentence is that “Man is a tree of the field” (Deut 20:19), one which he states is supported by the majority of commentators. [2]

We Are the Trees

As you might imagine, I like Wolff’s translation. I realize the statement is metaphorical. It means that like trees, we need care and cultivation. If we put down deep, spiritual roots, we will bear much fruit. But what if we aren’t like trees, but actually are trees.

First, if we are all one, then no separation of substance exists between us and one another, between us and our pets, our clothes, our homes, or the trees of the field.

Second, about ten years ago, through a therapeutic experience using vision, metaphor, and story, I experienced myself as a tree, connected through my roots to a forest of sisters. Although I don’t take it literally, the experience gave me a new connection to the trees around me. The Douglas fir are my brothers and sisters, the weeping birch is my cousin, and the Western red cedars are my grandmothers and grandfathers. Trees are my relations, my teachers, my healers.

Trees and Pain

As far as I know, trees don’t have receptors for pain. They can sense touch, like the mimosa whose leaves fold up when you stroke them or the tomato that sends repellent chemicals to a leaf where a worm is eating, but it’s not obvious this means they feel pain or suffering. So although they act to protect themselves from damage, that doesn’t mean they care when we pull them from the ground, trim their branches, or tear a leaf from their stem. [3]

Yet my experience, which counts for nothing in any scientific realm, is that trees do hurt.

Once I came across a hollow tree, wide enough to stand inside and with an opening I could slip through. Inside the tree, saw it had been through a fire. Gently I placed a hand on the charred inner bark, and sudden, sharp pain rushed through my arms and down my body. Quickly, I drew my hand away. The pain disappeared, though I remained breathless.

During last month’s ice storm, a branch from a neighbor’s plum tree snapped off. A week later, they had all four of the trees felled and chopped up. My heart aching mildly, I walked down to where the chunks of wood lay, the dark grain glistening with moisture, and as I got close, a wave of sadness crushed me, causing my step to falter. It felt overwhelming. Then, as I backed away from the dying pieces of wood, the sadness faded, leaving only the dull pain in my chest.

Mourning the World

When a duck dies, a deer is struck, a star falls, or the moon fades, I ache. The sadness is impersonal, philosophical. I trust that even after the sun swallows us, life will form and die and form again. If I don’t mourn the death of skin cells, chromosomes, or stars, does it really make sense that I cry for one burned-out tree or four flowering plums? Fire, plague, and disability are part of life, for humans and for trees. No life lasts forever.

Yet I am the trees. We are connected, our roots spreading deep into the earth, touching, tickling, communicating, and because of this connection, I care.

Some days the news makes me cry, for people, for our planet, for the death of love and hope and freedom. The frantic call of a straggling goose, the yap of a coyote, the loneliness of children and elders move me deeply. I fear and respect ice, wind, and earthquake, for they can shatter us to our core. And I am the trees.

But if I am the trees, I am also the duck, the goose, the coyote, and the people.

Our Connection with One Another

I am, for instance, the man who stood at the foot of his dying mother’s bed, eyes rimmed with red and shiny with moisture, separated from the rest of his family, and closed to my care. The way he stood, his voice, his broken gaze, all revealed his mental illness. Mostly, though, I noticed his pain.

Being drawn to pain, I reached out to him.

“Is there something I can do for you?” I asked him.

“Like what?” he wanted to know.

“Some people want a prayer. Some want to talk.”

He wanted nothing. With a sarcastic comment and an ironic gift of a empty piece of paper, he rebuffed me. Could anything touch his spirit, heal the batterings of his mind, temper his lonely wandering? With a bow of my head, I acknowledged his suffering and moved on. Just because I am drawn to pain, doesn’t mean I can do anything about it.

Pain and the President

At this moment in the history of our country, the most flagrant show of pain comes from the man in the center of our political sphere: our president. Of course, I don’t know him personally. Before he ran for office, I barely knew his name. Even now I only know what people report: the twitter quotes, the news feeds, the articles in the paper. In a few short weeks, his policies have devastated thousands of families and threaten to cause misery, pollution, and even death in unprecedented proportions. This country has never known such irresponsibility, such obvious grasping for attention, adulation, and abusive power.

In my work with addicts and in my position as a midwife for those who are passing from this life, I have learned that when we get stuck in denial, when we can’t release our souls to the oneness of all that is, we become miserable. We cover up our pain with drugs, shopping, self-aggrandizement, bullying, running, cleaning, or the allure of an eternally blissful life in the future.

But this doesn’t make the pain go away. It festers, swells, throbs deep within us where we can’t see or hear it, yet our subconscious knows it’s there. The pressure builds until we get lost in making the pain disappear, even though we’ll never admit there’s anything wrong.

The Pain of the Narcissist

I suspect our president is like this. If I were to get close to him, would he radiate agony, like the plum trees? Would fire shoot through my arm if I touched him, as it did when I touched that tree’s charred shell? Our president’s pain is enormous. Part of me longs to reach out to him, yet he would rebuff me more forcefully, more spitefully, than did the man whose mother was dying.

What can cure a wound so deep it has become invisible, like a shadow that hides in the shade?

I pray that God’s lightning bolt strikes our president with a love so intense it shatters him into wholeness. Likely it would feel like being rasped with sandpaper. When the years have taught us to protect ourselves with hatred and manipulation, honesty and kindness can be devastating. To take them in, we have to admit we were wrong, after all.

Cataclysmic Healing

Still, I pray for his healing. Such a cataclysmic event would be good for our president and for our country, but those kinds of miracles rarely occur. Life is a balance of opposites. Ugliness, evil, and death are part of who we are and what we act out. So our task is to stop the violence, as much as we can.

If we look at the scriptures of every religion, we will see that we have been trying to stop ugliness and violence for as long as we have existed. No matter what we do, pockets of nastiness and insecurity, hopelessness and rage, torture and emptiness, will survive. And no matter what we do, there will be moments when peace is primary, joy is normal, and love reigns.

Saying “No” to Tyranny

At some point, we will stop our president, because we place limits on dictators. It’s who we are; it’s what we do. I would rather it happen sooner than later, yet life is not so simple. Our president is smart, if not devious, and he does not take kindly to the word “no.”

I may be wrong about him, but from what I can tell, our president has convinced himself he is special, perhaps even divine, and he will fight until death to maintain that fiction. If so, stopping him will be frightful. Like a threatened animal or a betrayed child, he will fight as if his life depended on it, which it will, for when one with such a need to be perfect looks in a mirror and sees himself as he truly is, like Narcissus, he will end up dying.

Recovery, Seeing Ourselves, and Transformation

Death is not always the end, however. Can our president not understand that we must die to ourselves before we can be reborn, transformed, made new? We should all welcome a little death in our lives, for in that dying, in that letting go, is recovery.

In recovery, we stay open to our joy, our connectedness, our humanness, and also our bleeding pores. In recovery, we can no longer hide behind the bluster and bravado, shuttering our vulnerability even from ourselves. We must feel the sadness, emptiness, loneliness, hopelessness, and realize that those emotions are no more factual than are the stories we tell about how wonderful we are.

We are the trees. We stand in the fields, our roots tunneling into the ground, our branches reaching out. Some of us reach out for love; some think we don’t need love, so we reach out to control. God’s touch can heal our desperate longing to be in charge, to keep our bodies safe, to survive. I’m not sure how to heal the man so broken he cannot open his heart, yet I am drawn to pain, so I will never cease trying. In the meantime, we can heal ourselves, protect one another, and take sustenance from the trees of the field.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. See, for example, “Resources for Tu B’Shvat” from the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World by Carolyn Merchant, p. 131.
  2. Wolff, Akiva, “A Closer Examination of Deuteronomy 20:19,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3, 2011, 143-151,  http://jbqnew.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/393/jbq_393_baltashchit.pdf.
  3. See, for example, “Do Plants Feel Pain?” by Laurie L. Dove and “We Asked a Biologist if Plants Can Feel Pain” by Mike Pearl.
  4. To learn more about Tu B’Shvat, including the connection to conservation and the preservation of our ecosystems, see “Tu B’Shevat Message” by Shira Rosenblum and “What Is Tu B’Shvat?” by Eric Simon

Photo Credit – by Jens Lelie from Unsplash

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