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Asking the Clergy: Are trees sacred?

Rabbi Elliot Skiddell of the Reconstructionist Congregation Beth

Rabbi Elliot Skiddell of the Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Emeth, in Hewlett.

This week marks the celebration of Tu B’Shevat, the festival also known as Jewish Arbor Day or the New Year for Trees. Occurring this year from sundown on Tuesday to sundown on Wednesday, in Israel, Tu B’Shevat is an occasion for planting fruit trees as a way of restoring the region’s ecology. Other faiths also recognize trees as religious symbols. This week’s clergy discuss the significance of the living thing that “only God can make.”

Rabbi Elliot Skiddell

Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth, Rockville Centre

There is a parable related in the Talmud that tells of a wanderer lost in the desert. Exhausted, hungry and, most of all, thirsty, the wanderer came upon a tree rooted by a brook. The tree’s fruit was ripe and sweet, its shade refreshing, and the brook quenched the wanderer’s thirst. With renewed energy, the wanderer wished to bless the tree with these words: “If I say ‘May your fruit be sweet!’ It already is. And if I say, ‘May your shade be pleasant!’ It is already. Were I to bless you with a brook to flow beside you, it is there already. So, let this be my blessing, ‘May all your saplings be like you!’ ” The beauty and life-enhancing power of trees is celebrated on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat. This day marks the beginning of spring and the first flowering of trees in the Land of Israel. Before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, it was the day that signified the cycle of tithing for the fruit of trees. In ancient times, certain trees were endowed with significance and associated with special events in the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people, for example Abraham and Sarah at the Oak of Mamre. Trees themselves are not divine or sacred, but they may symbolize what is divine or sacred in life. Torah, for example, is compared to a tree; as we say, it “is a Tree of Life to all who embrace it.

Dr. Panna Shah

Member, Long Island Multi-Faith Forum

The Jain religion has promoted the philosophy of ecological harmony and nonviolence for centuries. Jainism is represented by 24 Tirthankaras (pathfinders) whose teachings have been its living legacy. Jainism describes five main elements of nature: earth, water, fire, air and vegetation as living creatures. Certain trees such as acacia, bel, bodhi tree or pipal, fig, mango, tamarind and teak are highly regarded. All 24 Tirthankars are believed to have meditated and attained knowledge under these trees. Jainism and the environment are rooted in a mutual sensitivity toward living beings, recognition of the interconnectedness of life-forms. It supports programs and educates others to respect and protect living systems. Mahavira, our last Tirthankara, proclaimed, “One who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, air, fire, water and vegetation disregards his own existence which is entwined with them.” Historically, humans and nature had a symbiotic relationship. With the advancement of science and technology, the rate of environmental exploitation and consumption of natural resources makes it mandatory for all to look towards protection of these resources and create a sustainable environment. Tree planting and preserving the forests are highly encouraged. Applying the Jain worldview of the interconnectedness of life-forms and a nonviolent ethic may help to protect our environment and the trees.

The Rev. David Anglin

Pastor, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Amityville

‘Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree,” the early 20th century poet, Joyce Kilmer, famously declared. As a creation of God, the tree proclaims His glory and beauty. Without words, the trees worship their Creator: “Then shall all the trees of the woods rejoice before the Lord, for He comes” (Psalm 96:12). The Scriptures associate human sin with a tree: the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Tempted by Satan, Adam and Eve rebelled, and ate from that tree. But God sent Jesus Christ to liberate humanity from sin and guilt. And even as our fall happened through a tree, so freedom and forgiveness happen through a tree — the Tree of the Cross. “He bore our sins in His own body upon the tree.” (I Peter 2:24). Only a tree can beat a tree! The Tree of the Cross overcomes the guilt represented by the Tree of the Garden. In the Christian imagination, every tree suggests the cross. Every tree reminds us that God has taken our pain and suffering, our sin and guilt upon Himself. In the melancholy days after Christmas, when the decorations come down, I sometimes take my Christmas tree . . . and turn it into a cross. I saw off the limbs, cut the trunk in two, and fasten the two pieces together. The reason Christ was born was to defeat sin and evil on the Tree of the Cross! As an ancient Passion hymn says: “Amid the nations, God hath reigned and triumphed from the Tree.”

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