Our Holy Family Tree (Bulletin Message for Tu BiShvat 2015/5775)

Shalom Sons of Israel!

When it gets this snowy in these winter months, we might find ourselves longing for the awe and inspiration of nature’s miracles. After all, at the times when we need to believe that our universe could only have been shaped by God, we might look towards the mountains, the valleys, the trees, and the wildlife that keep our surroundings diverse and beautiful. As we encounter them, we might feel we’re getting a preview of Divine grandeur.

But is that really the case? Do we go to nature to find God? Or do we find nature and just see nature?

Over the centuries, rabbis have debated this question: Where is God in nature? When it comes to Tu BiShvat (literally, the “15th day of the Hebrew month Sh’vat”), what we sometimes call “the birthday of the trees,” Jewish thinkers have wondered how we can best honor this “Jewish” Arbor Day. Recognizing that many pagan religions celebrate trees, many Jews have wondered how we can make sure that Tu BiShvat is a day for celebrating God in nature, and not nature as God.

Among the many different answers to these struggles lies a poem that Ashkenazi Jews rarely learn. In an Iraqi piyyut (a “prayer-poem”) known commonly by its first few Hebrew words “Az Yerannen,” we encounter the depiction of a God within and beyond nature. Written by the 19th century Chakham (“Sage”) Yosef Chayyim of Baghdad, “Az Yerannen” not only describes the “Blessed God who dwells amidst the willow trees,” but also sees that same divinity as the “Exalted God in the heavens of heavenly abodes.” For Chakham Yosef Chayyim, God is not only imminent—immediately present in nature—but God is also transcendent—beyond anything our five senses could understand.

Yosef Chayyim is not wrestling with a tension of two contradictory ideas about God. For our poet, the distant God and the intimate God are the same God, but that same God can be experienced in two different ways. The bulk of the piyyut highlights the visible miracles of nature, praiseworthy for housing Godliness on Earth: trees, forest, plants, crops, produce. After exploring all the earthly ways in which God’s presence can be manifest in nature, Yosef Chayyim writes in the piyyut’s last stanza, “Strengthen the hearts of the wayward. / Grant joy to children alongside their parents. / Thus we will merit many healthy years. / I will sing a new song. / May the living God, our Rock, be glorified, and may God’s name be holy.” The piyyut ends on a genealogical note that reminds us that, if we wanted to do so, we could locate the Godly in our family tree. Parent and child hold the same relationship that root and tree hold, and they too hold that same relationship between Creator and creation. All children are creations of the Parent-Creator.

Although Yosef Chayyim did not say this explicitly, “Az Yerannen” reminds us that Tu BiShvat is actually less about the tree; it’s about the roots.

So, when we go outside to look for evidence that there is a God, Tu BiShvat very subtly reminds us that the vistas that inspire awe in us are not God’s image; the wonders of the world are God’s footprints. When we see a waterfall, we must be compelled to look beyond the waterfall: to ask, “Who made this?”

Tu BiShvat same’ach—a happy Tu BiShvat!
Rabbi Jonah Rank


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