We’re now preparing to celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat and Rosh Hashanah L’Ilanot or the New Year of the Trees; it’s a day when it’s become traditional to plant trees, both literally and figuratively. During these cold and dreary winter days, it’s difficult to think about planting trees, especially when the world seems on the brink of disaster: year three of the Covid-19 global pandemic, climate change and massive destruction to the planet and human lives, worldwide antisemitism, and the erosion of American democracy. And this year, when Tu b’Shevat coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day in America, we remember the fallen civil rights leader but also remain acutely aware of ongoing racial tensions in the U.S.
But Tu b’Shevat is not just for the trees. When the world feels upside down, I believe that we should celebrate Tu b’Shevat as a time to plant seeds of hope and optimism as a way to overcome any sense of despair. While this may appear pollyannish, or excessively optimistic, Jewish history offers us valuable lessons.
For centuries, Tu b’Shevat has sowed hope for the future in the midst of tough times. After the traumatic Expulsion from Spain and Portugal, the 16th century Kabbalists in Safed infused new spiritual meaning to the holiday with the creation of the Tu b’Shevat seder. Despite its many challenges as a fledgling institution, the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology — held its ceremonial opening on 15 Shevat 5685 (February 9, 1925), decades before Israel’s independence. And it was on Tu b’Shevat 5709 (February 14, 1949) that President Dr. Chaim Weizmann delivered a passionate speech https://www.jcpa.org/art/knesset1.htm at the sitting of the first Knesset (originally called the Constituent Assembly) – a period when the State of Israel faced complex challenges and a precarious future as a new nation, while also struggling to absorb masses of Jewish refugees seeking shelter and security in the Jewish Homeland.
This year, a few days after Tu b’Shevat, concludes shloshim, which marks the traditional 30-day mourning period from burial, for my dear friend who died this past December. For nearly 1 ½ years, I recited prayers of healing for Yona bat Leah, a beloved wife, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, and passionate Jewish educator. Most of all, today I reflect on her unflagging optimism during her difficult illness and fierce determination to continue teaching – and, just as she had done for more than 40 years, to plant seeds that would nurture a love of Judaism and Eretz Yisrael among American children. May her memory be for a blessing.
So I reflect on the importance of planting seeds for our descendants, as we learn from the oft-recounted tale of the Talmudic sage known as Honi Ha-Ma’agel or Circle Maker (Taanit 23a:15) who meets a man planting a carob tree. Honi asks how long it takes for the tree to bear fruit, and the man replies, “70 years.” When Honi then asks whether the man is certain that he will live another 70 years, the man responds, “As my forefathers planted those for me, so I too plant these for my children.”
We cannot all physically plant trees. And in North America the closest some of us may get to the carob fruit is at an organic food store or memories of celebrating Tu b’Shevat at Hebrew school by eating bokser (carob pod). But each of us has the ability to do our part to impact the future, whether it’s teaching future generations, healing the sick, preserving the environment, or championing the causes dear to our hearts.
“Again it will be a day of spring, a day of change and wonder.” The late Israeli poet Natan Alterman wrote these words in the Davar newspaper in a rhymed column entitled “With the First Knesset,” published the week of that historic event when Israel’s existence remained at stake. So too, this Tu b’Shevat, when we face a plethora of global and domestic challenges, let’s look ahead with hope and pledge to plant seeds for change and a better tomorrow.