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Rabbi Wittenberg's Weekly Message

Erev Shabbat, 14 Shevat 5770,
Friday 29 January, 2010

Dear Community,
Tomorrow will be Tu Bishevat, the New Year of the Trees. ‘It is a tree of life to those who grasp hold of it’, we say every time we return the Torah to the ark, thus linking the spiritual vitality of our faith to the enduring, sustaining and beautiful blessing of trees. Indeed, the wooden rollers onto which the parchment scroll of the Torah is attached at either end are called atsei chayyim, trees of life, thus honouring this connection between what nurtures the life within us and what nourishes life round about us.
Trees are slow. We can, and must, plant them. We can water them in their early months, protect them from wind and rodents, cherish them and appreciate them. But we can scarcely speed them up. Ten years after planting, trees of the forest like the oak and beech begin to unfold their canopy above our heads; after forty years they have stature, after a hundred they are mature, while the majesty of an oak may reign for three hundred years or more. That’s why entering a forest is an act of humility, - walking amidst its vital silence by day, looking up at the stars through the dark branches by night. Abraham Joshua Heschel considered it a form of prayer, allowing our spirit to worship together with the presence of the trees.
Trees, like Torah, sustain life. Even the experts only partially know how many species of insects are dependent on trees. The wisdom now is not to clear dead and fallen wood out of forests, because so many creatures live even in the decomposing wood. The insects, the leaves and the shelter of the branches bring innumerable birds to the trees. In the book of Daniel God’s care for the world is compared to the life-giving sustenance of a tree, an image which has become central to the way Jewish, and non-Jewish, mystics have understood the nourishment of all life on earth.
Trees may be slow. But destruction is swift, almost instantaneous. We do it unthinkingly by the very way we live. Our need, or greed (who decides where the boundary lies?) lays whole swathes of forest waste at the other side of the world. Like many, I feel ashamed. Rabbi Hugo Gryn recalled how his father, a timber merchant, would never leave a site where trees had been cut down without first insisting that saplings be planted. We often don’t do likewise.
I believe that we are somehow accountable to the trees. Their ancient presence keeps a hidden reckoning of how many we’ve destroyed or planted, cherished or uprooted. Their time is closer to God’s time; their rings measure and out-measure human history. They bring God’s blessings, yet they also warn us of a profound, inexorable judgment over our deeds.
Now is the time to plant
Shabbat Shalom
Jonathan Wittenberg

To plant trees now, please take a look at:
- Click here to visit the JNF (Jewish National Fund) Tree Planting Centre to plant trees in Israel
- To plant trees in Africa visit Tree Aid by clicking here.
- Bustan is an NGO that works in the Bedouin and Jewish communities in the Negev. To find out more and how to support their environmental work click here.