Tu B’shevat, or the 15th day of the month of Shevat in the Jewish calendar, marks the New Year for Trees. Ecologically, this is the general point in the year where trees in Israel begin to bud anew. Jewishly, this date is specified for the start of the new cycle of tithes relating to the budding of trees. The idea of celebrating Tu B’Shevat formerly and the creation of the seder comes from the 17th century kabbalists’ understanding of the line in Deuteronomy, For man is like the tree of the field. The full passage says, When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? I read an old Hasidic story from the 6th Rebbe of Lubavitch about a boy and his father taking a walk in the woods, and the father, gesturing around at the trees, exclaims to his son, See G-dliness! Every movement of each stalk and grass was included in G-d's Primordial Thought of Creation, in G-d's all-embracing vision of history, and is guided by Divine providence toward a G-dly purpose.
So far, now, we know that trees are really important and should not be innocent casualties of war, a man’s life is no more important than that of a tree, and G-d created the natural world perfectly, with every plant exactly where it is meant to be. As Jews, when we celebrate the New Year for the Trees, we should keep these ideas in mind.
The phrase, “making the desert green” or “bloom” has become so embedded in the images and language surrounding Israel that its origins are now difficult to trace, and we lose track of what it really means. Before the creation of the state of Israel, Jews were kicked out of many countries, oppressed, and persecuted around the world. Planting trees in Israel is a way of setting in our people’s roots as well as the plants’. But it’s really important to know that we plant the right kind of trees.
If G-d made the world as it was meant to be, than we can assume that the desert was meant to be a desert. Deserts are not green. They should not be made green. We can set down our roots in olive trees, a few date and fig trees, a cactus or two, but turning the desert green the way North America or Eastern Europe (the places where most Jews who “plant trees in Israel” are from) is just ecologically bad.
For a long time, the Jewish National Fund planted evergreens in Israel. Evergreens require a lot of water, of which there is not much in the desert, and they also deposit acidic needles which kill all other plant life that share the same plots of soil. This created a large “Green Belt” around the areas where the trees grew, making miles of land unusable for anything else. It created lasting environmental problems, and displaced a lot of farmers whose olive groves were destroyed.
There are parts of the northern country that get enough water to sustain greenery. Lebanon’s national plant is the evergreen, so planting along that border would probably have been fine. But this Green Belt was being planted closer to Jerusalem, an area that already had a lot of environmental issues due to overpopulation and substantial infrastructure, and pressures on water resources and land ownership relating the divides and conflicts between the Jews and Arabs in the area. Adding this dead zone of acidic needles was the pine cone on the camel’s back, and the JNF has subsequently been blamed for lost utility in Palestinian lands close to the West Bank/Israel border.
Now, the JNF and others have learned that we can’t make Israel look like the countries we come from. Now, more environmental awareness is spreading and people are realizing it is just as an important Jewish value as human rights. So now, the JNF has its new campaign to uproot the evergreens, and is planting desert-friendly trees in your name instead. It’s really important that we take note of this. I’m sure you all know, it’s not easy to admit such a big mistake. Their pride or legitimacy as an organization could have been damaged, but they knew it was more important to just fix it. When you send money to groups like the JNF, send a letter or note with it, saying, “Hey, we support you. Thanks for cleaning up your mistakes,” so that they know you want them to keep doing it! Spread the word, not the pine needles. And the next time someone says something about making the desert green, you say, “No, we’re making the desert healthy.” L’Shana Tova L’ilanot!