While many Jews have never heard of Tu Bishvat, many of those who have heard of it know it only as a Jewish Arbor Day, or perhaps the Jewish Groundhog Day, when we’re promised another six weeks of winter if we can detect the shadow that the infamous bokser (carob) “fruit” casts. In truth, this “birthday of the trees” has significance for various agricultural milestones in a tree’s life, from orlah (Jewish law dictates waiting until after the day of Tu Bishvat in a tree’s fourth year to eat the tree’s fruits) to ma’aser (the various tithes that we take annually before Tu B’shvat). I’m not sure how often this day has coincided with Martin Luther King Day since the latter became a national holiday, but this year, Tu Bishvat occurs on the same day as MLK Day, and I believe this confluence highlights a crucial lesson.
The Torah compares mankind to a tree, “For man is a tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19). While there are various explanations for this striking analogy, humans and trees clearly share common characteristics regarding growth. If we tend to a tree with the appropriate balance, ensuring that it gets its proper nutrition and sunlight, while mulching and pruning at the proper times, the tree will grow and grow, lasting for tens and perhaps hundreds of years. So too, when it comes to human beings, especially from an early age — if we give our children the proper balance of love and discipline, educating them with the correct values and morals, they will flourish.
This is a lesson that Martin Luther King taught the entire world, that each of us, regardless of background or race, has tremendous potential and value. He truly changed the world, replacing the darkness of bigots with beautiful sunshine highlighting the inherent godliness that each of us carries. His words were suffused with the Tanach, the Jewish Bible, buttressing his call for equality and an end to oppression through the ringing words of our great Jewish prophets. When Dr. King cried out in perhaps his famous speech that
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; and
…we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
He was quoting from Isaiah and Amos, respectively. These prophets, continuing the revolutionary tradition of the Torah, which posits that all people are created in God’s image, joined the biblical Jewish chorus that drowned out the cacophonous confusion that divided the world based on external factors such as race, religion, wealth and gender, thereby giving hope for a better tomorrow to multitudes spanning history.
It is thus not coincidental that Jews have always stood against the forces of oppression and demonization, and not only because we are Exhibit A targeted by such evil. It is part of our DNA, almost literally according to the Talmud (Yevamot 79a), to be compassionate and do good, so it is not surprising that Jews played a major role and were significantly overrepresented in both fighting apartheid in South African (e.g., Helen Suzman and Esther Barsel, among many others) and for equal rights in the USA, even to the extent of being beaten and giving their lives (e.g., Rabbi Arthur Lelyved, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner).
MLK’s positive relationship with Judaism extended beyond Tanach to Jews, such as his deep connection with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. (I’m proud to say that my uncle, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, played a major role in organizing his mentor Rabbi Heschel’s participation in the Selma to Montgomery march, himself marching in the 2nd row behind MLK and Rabbi Heschel). It is, thus, especially egregious to witness, over 50 years since the assassination of Dr. King, certain people who ignore MLK’s vision of equality for all, creating a special category for Jews by refusing to recognize the indigenous Jewish rights to Israel, or promoting anti-semitic tropes such as Jews allegedly bearing collective responsibility as exploiters of black people.
Let us, in the tradition of our prophets, as well as MLK, drown out this new darkness with truth and education. Let us remember how MLK, as recorded by Harvard Professor Seymour Martin Lipset, responded to a critic of Zionism on October 27, 1967: “Don’t talk like that! When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!” Let, thus, the authentic, ancient Jewish voice of justice and freedom ring out from the mountains of Jerusalem to the valleys, hills, slopes, villages, hamlets, cities and states across our world. As we mark both Tu Bishvat and MLK Day, let us ensure that we follow in the footsteps of this great visionary, who reminded us that we can all rise like righteous palms, giving of our fruit to those around us as we continue his and the Jewish universal goal of building a beautiful, sacred world based on justice and love.