Tu B’Shevat and the “Miracle” of Photosynthesis

17 January 2014  
16 Shevat 5774  

Shalom Chaverim,   

It has been a busy and energetic week at Gann.  Last night at our Winter Arts Festival, our talented and passionate students filled our second floor art gallery and Bernice Krupp Black Box Theater with creativity and joy.  And tomorrow night in the Gann gym starting at 7:30 p.m., our Boys’ and Girls’ Varsity Basketball teams will square off against Maimonides in our annual rivalry.  Go Gann! 

Yesterday was the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the 15th of the Jewish month of Shevat, which celebrates the “New Year of the Trees.” On Wednesday we learned about the holiday together as a community, including trivia in Hebrew about the Land of Israel and the Biblically proscribed “seven species—shivah minim” that are unique to the Land. We also linked the holiday to environmental consciousness and learned a TED talk inspired way to dry our hands without wasting more than one paper towel.  

For many of us, the concept of the “new year,” or, as I learned as a child, the “birthday” of the trees, can feel a bit childish or, at best, cute.  In fact, the holiday has many levels of interpretation and has come to mean different things in the rabbinic tradition for Jewish mystics, Zionists, and environmentalists. (To learn more, check out this brief article.)  

We saw a beautiful example of the integration of science and spirituality when, in honor of trees, our Dean of Students and biology teacher, Laila Goodman, gave a passionate d’var Torah about photosynthesis. “Except for deep thermal vents,” Laila explained, “all life on earth depends on photosynthesis. All food is either a direct product of photosynthesis (e.g. plants, grains), or the product of animals who have eaten foods that are the products of photosynthesis.” With the wonder of one who is witnessing the revelation of the Divine in the world, Laila marveled at the ways the small details in chemistry and biology bear witness to the miracle of life. “We are here, we are breathing, we are alive because carbon dioxide and water combine with the sun’s energy to form glucose.  That glucose is the basis of all the carbohydrates that nourish and sustain us.” 

“Gann Academy,” she charged, “let us honor the ‘new year’ of trees by meditating on and being deeply grateful for photosynthesis.”   

What was so beautiful about this moment was that Laila broke down the so often learned dichotomy between science and religion, between reason and revelation, between “miracle” and explanation. For her, understanding the intricate workings of our world through a scientific lens actually deepens her understanding of the traditional Jewish idea that God “mechadesh b’kol yom tamid maaseh breishit—renews each day, always, the wonders of creation.” Rather than threatening Laila’s spiritual self, scientific inquiry empowers and inspires her to feel awe, wonder, and gratitude.  

Laila’s “d’var Torah” modeled an approach to learning and to the intersection of academic rigor and Jewish identity formation. Seeing the intersection and interaction between these two will help us to sustain and strengthen our students’ intellectual and spiritual lives and to build their capacities to find meaning and inspiration in the Jewish tradition and in all of their learning. What a beautiful way to start the “new year”!  

Shabbat Shalom,  

Rabbi Marc Baker  


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