We enter the Hebrew month of Shvat and consider how every new month, is potentially a new beginning. Shvat has the special focus of tree and environmental awareness, with Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, being on the 14th of the month, at the time of the full moon.
The Sages teach that at the start of every month we should consider the festival that falls during that month. Even if the festival is just a one day event, it actually gives a flavour to the whole month and it’s up to us to be aware of it. This is the month of trees!
The month of Shvat is a time to rethink our connection with nature and our commitment to help decrease pollution, each of us in our own way, whether it be educating ourselves and others about the environment, improving our methods of recycling, using renewable energy sources or simply teaching our children to love playing in parks.
Talmud teaches that a famous wise man, Honi Ha’maagel, saw an elderly person planting a sapling. He asked the person why he was planting the tree considering it would only bear fruit after he would certainly have passed away. The old man said, “I’m doing it for generations to come.” And so, our tradition teaches that part of our caring for this planet is not for ourselves but for future generations.
Consider the breath. Trees give out oxygen and we breathe it in. We exhale carbon dioxide and trees take it in. In a way, it can be said that we humans and trees have complimentary breaths. This is a perfect month to start or restart your commitment to meditating on the breath. Just 5 minutes a day. Pick your favourite relaxing music, get comfortable and let your awareness rest on your breath. As you do so, you might visualize trees breathing in your outbreath; and as you inhale, you breathe in what the trees are exhaling. A cycle of harmony in nature!
In this week’s Torah reading, we learn about Moses relaying the word of God to the Children of Israel at the time when they are slaves in Egypt. God asks Moses to give the people hope, sending them the message that they will be freed from slavery and will be able to return to the Land of Israel. It is said that the people did not listen to Moses because of the “hard labour of slavery” and because they were “short of breath” kotser ruach (Exodus 6:9). They were in so much emotional and physical pain that they were not able to listen to the divine message, they were “short of breath”. Rashi, the Tenth Century French commentator, states that the people were not able to take deep breaths.
How can we relate to this today? Living in this lucky country, we are not slaves, yet how many of us are able to have time to metaphorically breathe deeply and listen to the “still small voice” from within the depths of our souls? How often do we feel we are in tune with ourselves, with nature and “breathing easy”?
This week’s Torah reading and new moon invites us to notice when we are “short of breath” and to make time to listen to the divine voice of our Inner Self. We might do this by connecting with nature, by meditating on the breath, by being aware of times when we are ‘enslaved’ by things that do not serve us well and by listening to each other and perceiving the holiness in each person.
During this month of Shvat, may we be grateful for the trees around us and may we take note of those times when we are short of breath.