With thanks to Ilan Shamir for these lessons.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a deep affinity for trees. As a little girl, I admired them from afar until finally getting up enough courage to climb one. Carefully scaling the trunk, deftly stepping onto the branches, ultimately landing in a safe spot where I could look at the world down below.
There was something so powerful about sitting in that tree, feeling held and protected. Of course, the irony was I was completely unprotected–sitting on an open branch with nothing to catch me if I fell; nonetheless, something made me feel safe and cared for. Now, as an adult, I would say that I could feel the lifeforce and energy of the trees keeping me buoyed and held.
In Judaism, trees hold a special place, so much so that the Torah forbids us to destroy trees when we are fighting in a war (Deuteronomy 20:19) and we are told that we must wait three years before eating any of a tree’s fruits (Leviticus 19:23). In addition to these tree laws, Jewish tradition has an entire festival dedicated to the trees.
Tu B’Shevat, called the birthday of the trees, falls on the 15th day of the month of Shevat. It is on this day that we mark the shift occurring inside the trees who had been slumbering in the depths of winter, now their sap awakening and stirring. This internal movement alerts us to the approach of spring. It’s as if the trees are telling us, “Hang on folks, winter may feel challenging but spring is around the corner! Don’t despair!”
As a self-professed tree hugger, I love the fact that our tradition has an entire holiday to celebrate the trees. While some Jews plant trees, others partake in a Tu B’Shevat seder (similar to a Passover seder) with a focus on eating various fruits, and nuts and drinking four types of wine to represent the four seasons and the changes that take place in the trees during the year.
I personally like to reflect on the many lessons trees have taught me during my lifetime and how they in turn have influenced my parenting. Here are some of those lessons that I believe are important to pass onto our saplings:
Stand Tall and Proud: Teaching our kids to exude confidence is a skill they will carry with them into adulthood. As a mom, I worked hard to help my kids discover their talents and gifts, even if their interests were not mine. Working with your child to discover what they love to do and providing opportunities for that to happen helps them feel a sense of accomplishment–leading them to stand tall and proud.
Sink your roots into the earth: Getting our kids outside in nature is beneficial, not only physically but mentally and emotionally, too. Connecting with nature and walking outside with our bare feet touching the earth is incredibly powerful. Research now shows that this process called “grounding” or “earthing” helps with alleviating stress, reducing inflammation, and other chronic conditions.
Be content with your natural beauty: Encouraging kids to feel good about themselves and their bodies is another lesson we learn from the trees. When we see different trees in a forest, we see some are more crooked, others are taller or shorter but we don’t judge them; we see their natural beauty. Teaching our kids to apply this idea to humans is a wonderful way to share that we each have our own innate natural beauty.
Go out on a limb: Teaching our kids to help others is not only a central Jewish value but a human value. Finding or creating opportunities to do social action activities shows our kids the importance of helping others and that they have the power to make a difference in another’s life. Going out on a limb can also happen in our own families and with friends, whether it’s doing household chores or defending a friend who is being bullied, being supportive of others’ needs is another lesson we can learn from the trees.
Remember your roots: Providing our kids with a sense of their roots, lineage, and family history connects them to a larger story, contextualizing from where they came. Telling stories, showing videos, and looking at family photo albums all provide our children with a sense of belonging and connection.
However you choose to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, whether you decide to plant a tree, eat some fruit, or rest in their shade, let us thank the trees for the many lessons they continue to teach us.
Amy Grossblatt Pessah is a rabbi, author, spiritual director and mom. She received her MAJE from HUC-JIR and her semicha from Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Amy has recently published her first book, Parenting on a Prayer: Ancient Jewish Secrets for Raising Modern Children. Her work has been featured in The Forward, Kveller, and Ritualwell. Amy lives in Florida with her husband; they are the proud parents of three young adults. Find her at A Soulful Journey.