Reflections on Tu B’Shevat
The 15th of the Hebrew calendar month of Shevat (Tu B’Shevat), this year, corresponding to January 30/31, marks the new year in the agricultural cycle, for purposes of various Jewish legal requirements relating to produce. The date has, in more recent times, been embraced as a Jewish Arbor Day. This year, Tu B’Shevat coincided with a striking, early morning eclipse of the moon.
Both vegetation and the appearance (or disappearance) of the moon are natural phenomena that did not spring from the ingenuity of humankind, yet we are capable of understanding plant growth and astronomy and apply that understanding to society’s benefit. However, our understanding and use of natural wonders cannot answer the very basic question of how best to lead one’s life in the precious years that each person enjoys.
The beauty of nature can evoke awe and appreciation. Yet, in the name of nature, Nazism called for promoting racial purity and implemented the systematic murder of millions of people. The ”natural” human instinct of acquisitiveness unleashed centuries of colonialism and the exploitation and murder of millions of people.
During this very week of celebrating nature, Jews around the world are, in the weekly cycle of Torah study, reading chapters in the Book of Exodus that include the 10 commandments. While appreciating the gifts of understanding and “subduing” nature, Judaism understands that “natural law” is, alone, an insufficient guide to life. The wisdom that is inherent in Torah addresses questions of meaning and values that the study of nature cannot answer.
There is, in contemporary education, great emphasis on STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. The capacity to better understand the natural world is, surely, a gift, and realizing that capacity is praiseworthy. Yet, STEM education should not stand by itself. We owe it to ourselves and our children to focus, at the same time, on questions of ultimate meaning. This is the enduring role of Jewish education.