Tu Bishvat teaches that taxes are holy.
Tu Bishvat, which we just celebrated this week, is the Jewish new year of the trees, and opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge our interdependence with the natural world, and with trees specifically. It is generally observed through a seder, a ritual meal which—like the Passover seder—is marked by eating symbolic foods. Rather than using the foods to tell the story of the Exodus from slavery, they tell the story of the spiritual meanings embedded within nature.
But it wasn’t always like this, the symbolic celebration of Tu Bishvat was a creation of the Jewish mystics. The original reason Tu Bishvat is on our calendar is more prosaic. It was (and this is hinted at when we call it the “new year of the trees”) a way to mark the ages of trees for tithing purposes.
In Leviticus 19:23-25 we read, “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before God, and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased…”
In other words, when you plant a tree, you are not to eat the fruit for the first three years, and in the fourth year you bring the fruit as an offering to the Temple. Only then can you use the fruit from the tree. And in order to fulfill this practice, one would need to know how old one’s tree is. Rather than needing to remember the exact age of every tree, Tu Bishvat was to be the day when all trees were considered as if they had aged a year.
The mystical observance of Tu Bishvat is much more compelling, perhaps, especially as we do not offer fruit as an offering to a Temple. But there is something meaningful in this original practice—the idea that what is ours is not wholly ours, and that in order for us to benefit we must first give up some of what we created for the benefit of others.
And since the fruit in the fourth year was going to a central institution, a contemporary parallel is taxation. That we give some of what is ours for the benefit of all.
I think about this as ballots have arrived in our mailboxes for a special February election here in Olympia. The primary reason for the ballot is the measure to create The Home Fund, a special fund that will generate revenue from a small sales tax increase in order to create affordable housing and more social services for those in need. I’ve endorsed this measure and plan to vote for it.
We know the issue that homelessness has been in Olympia, there are too many people with real needs in our community. And while we have great services in the Interfaith Works shelter and the new Community Care Center, to name two, there is always more need. And by generating money to build housing, the Home Fund addresses the issue of homelessness from the simple premise that unhoused people need homes first, and then, with that safety and security, can address other issues as needed.
We have been engaged with the issue of homelessness at Temple Beth Hatfiloh for years, from hosting the overflow shelter, to opening up our doors to the warming center, to supporting the permanent shelter and other efforts, we have done what we can to support those in need. But, what we can do as a congregation is limited, it takes a much larger effort with greater resources. The Home Fund is one such effort, and has the ability to generate tremendous resources for our community. We do what we can as a congregation, and one of those things is to use our individual strengths and voices and vote.
In connecting the tithing of fruit with God, the Torah is making the case that supporting our communal institutions is not just necessary, but sacred. There is a lot that can be said about taxes, but in the case of the Home Fund it is clear, that supporting those in our community through a slight sales tax increase is also sacred.
When we celebrate Tu Bishvat, we share how we are dependent on trees for so much—food and wood, shade and oxygen. And this should remind us as well how we are dependent on one another for many of our basic needs. With the Home Fund we will be able to give a little of what we have to share with others for what they need. This way we are all uplifted.