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Congregation Beth HaTephila

An Engaging, Inclusive, Reform Congregation in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Between You and Me - January 2021

“Rabbi, is there a blessing for the Czar?”  So goes the famous line from Fiddler on the Roof.  The reason this is funny is that it is true.  It seems there is nothing that is beyond the reach of our Jewish tradition.  This month we have an entire holiday dedicated to celebrating the birthday of trees, Tu BiShvat.  There was a practical reason for this.  The Levitical injunction not to eat the fruit of a tree for three years necessitated there being a calendar for when a tree turns one, then two, then three.  Only then would one know that a tree’s fruit was permitted for eating.  And while we freeze here in North America, the almond trees in Israel will blossom this month and be the harbingers that a new year for the trees has arrived. 

Scientists are learning profound things about trees that are creating paradigm shifts in how we view how they survive and how life on our planet might best thrive in general.  Since Darwin, biologists have emphasized survival of the fittest individuals is the guiding principle at work amongst organisms in any given eco-system.  They have painted a picture of a perpetual contest between discrete species and the struggle of each organism to survive and reproduce and, underlying it all, the single-minded ambition of selfish genes.  However, what they are discovering instead is there may be a whole lot more cooperation and altruism in the mix- especially for trees.  Forest ecologists are finding extensive networks of fungal threads that operate across species of trees and link every tree in a forest.  Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones can pass from tree to tree through these subterranean networks.  Researchers have observed that life-sustaining resources flow from the oldest and biggest trees to the youngest and smallest.  They’ve traced alarm signals being sent chemically from trees to warn neighboring trees of imminent danger.  When seedlings are severed from these forest floor networks, scientists have observed that they are more likely to die than their networked counterparts.  And if a tree is on the brink of death, sometimes it bequeaths a substantial share of its carbon to its neighbors.

Unlike the Darwinian story in which each limb and branch fights for its place in the sun, this characterization of tree behavior seems downright noble.  Living in Western North Carolina surrounded by the majesty of the mountains which are blanketed by communities of trees, maybe we have a better chance than some to remember what makes life both sustainable but also noble: the threads of connection that link our lives in a web of interdependence with others’; how the experienced must nurture the youth; how we warn each other in times of danger; how generously we share our resources because intuitively we know that our collective success is greater than personal gain. 

Every inhale we take, is because a tree or a plant exhaled- which means we are “in-network” with them! As we usher in a New Year and a New Year of the Trees, may we, as a human community, likewise breathe in their spirit of connection, cooperation and love.

Mon, September 25 2023 10 Tishrei 5784