The Painted Cave Wildfire roared through Santa Barbara when I was 20 years old, blackening 5,000 acres, destroying 427 homes, killing countless animals, and taking one precious human life.
My neighborhood was leveled, and my home was gone. I fell into a depression so deep and oppressive that I could not imagine any other way of being.
Two long years later, I began to notice a subtle change. To my bewilderment and delight, delicate tendrils of interest emerged from my charred inner landscape. Tiny shoots of ambition miraculously unfurled, first one and then another. I began to move forward with my life, re-engaging with friends and applying to law school.
I have come to associate this wondrous emergence of new life from seemingly dead places with the Jewish holiday of Tu BiShvat, also known as Rosh HaShanah L’llanot (literally, the New Year of Trees).
Where I live in San Francisco, Tu BiShvat arrives when the winter skeletons of cherry trees burst out in profusions of pink blossoms. I celebrate the holiday with a Tu BiShvat seder that includes fruits and flowers, wine, brachot (blessings), and poetry.
We eat certain fruits with specific characteristics, such as those with tough exteriors, which are said to represent people who are tough on the outside but sweet and vulnerable on the inside. I think of the way people with depression often present an impermeable facade that protects them and enables them to function, but prevents others from seeing their suffering and offering support.
Like most Jewish holidays, Tu Bishvat has evolved. In ancient Israel, it marked the beginning of the year for purposes of assessing a fruit tithe. When the Jews went into exile, the tithing system ended and the day lost its practical significance
Many hundreds of years later, new life was breathed into Tu BiShvat by a small group of Kabbalists who had fled the Spanish Inquisition and settled in the Land of Israel.
Seeking to re-establish their ancestors’ sense of connection to the land, they created a special seder for Tu BiShvat, one that connected the ancient tree-fruit tithing system to their beliefs about the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life), which represents reality as a dynamic cosmic tree of layered and coexisting aspects that trap and release divine sparks of life. The Kabbalist seder seeks to release these trapped sparks and bring the world into closer alignment with the Divine.
In recent years, Jews around the world have created other kinds of Tu BiShvat traditions, often focused on planting trees and caring for the environment.
When my children were young, we held a very simple seder in our home, with different kinds of fruits, bright flowers, songs, and hands-on activities. We mixed white and red juice to make different colors, and planted parsley seeds in cups, to be harvested at Passover.
When I took a position with an environmental organization that emphasizes cultural inclusion and diversity, I introduced a modified version of the Tu BiShvat seder that allows my colleagues to engage with environmental themes through this flexible lens, connecting people and trees, spirituality and the earth.
This year, I look to Tu BiShvat for a sense of hope and the fortitude to help heal our world (tikkun olam) against what seem like overwhelming odds.
I don’t know if humankind will manage to pull out of our environmental nose-dive. But I do know this: If we succeed, it will be because we absorbed these lessons of Tu BiShvat: First, to act on our duty to care for the Earth and teach this lesson to the next generation. And, second, to hang on, with all our might, to that most tenuous strand of hope that exists in the withered tree, in the inert seed, and in the person mired in depression.
We face many more wildfires, and a lot more suffering. To persevere we will all need to keep reminding ourselves – and each other – that even in the darkest times, the divine sparks of light and regeneration may be hidden.
That’s what I’ll be reflecting on when I sit down to my Tu BiShvat seder this year.
Download a copy of the author's Tu BiShvat seder.