Tu B’Shvat in Umm Al Kheir

Today, the Center for Jewish Non-Violence and “All That’s Left” held a Tu B’Shvat event in the Palestinian village of Umm Al Khir.  Below are the remarks I made framing the event in the context of Tu B’Shvat

The villagers of Umm Al Kheir are Bedouin who had lived in what became Israel in 1948. They purchased land in the South Hebron Hills in 1956.  Their troubles began after the Carmel settlement was founded in the 1980’s, and they now live up against the Carmel fence.  The Carmel settlers have tried to claim that Umm Al Hiran is part of their municipal plan, although that is still in court.  Carmel’s houses dangerously lengthen the travel tie for Umm Al Kheir flocks to access their pasture.  Despite a court order, settlers sometimes employ violence to force the shepherds and their flocks even further out of their way.  In addition to planting zaater, the rebuilt community center was dedicated, and the first demolitions 10 years ago were remembered.

My remarks:

Before I talk about Tu B’Shvat, I need to say that my heart is heavy today because a few kilometers from here I participated yesterday in the funeral of 100 year old Musa Hussein Abu Al Qian, from Umm Al Hiran, another of the villages that is part of our “Four Villages Campaign.” He died of a broken heart after the death of his son, and fearful that he was about to be evicted from his home.

Tu B’Shvat has gone through many gilgulim (permutations).  For the Talmudic sage it was actually the new year of the trees for tax purposes.  In the Jerusalem Talmud we are taught that this is the day that trees cease drinking from last year’s rain, and begin to drink from the new rains.  After we were exiled from our land, eating fruits from the Land of Israel became a symbol of our longing for the Land of Israel.  The kabbalist of Tzfat created the first Tikkun Tu B’Shvat, “Pri Eitz Hadar,” the inspiration for the Tu B’Shvat seder that have become increasingly popular today. The Zionist Movement made Tu B’Shvat into a tree planting holiday.  Today both Israelis and Palestinians have made trees a tool of their nationalist struggles. Trees live a long time, have deep roots in the land, and create facts on the ground.

If some of this spoils the holiday for you, I need to add that Tu B’Shvat always falls adjacent to Parahat Beshalakh, the Torah portion we have been reading this week.  We read of the wondrous liberation of the Children of Irael from Egyptian slavery. However, it is a zero sum game.  Our liberation is gained through suffering, destruction and death for Egyptians.  Until this day we traditionally read every morning the “Song at the Sea” from this week’s portion, that the Children of Israel joyously sang because of their salvation.  “Mi khamokha,” taken from the song, is a central prayer in “The Shema and her surrounding blessings.”  It is true that the midrash teaches us that it was one thing for the Children of Israel to sing, but God forbids the angels from joining in, “Works of my hands are drowning, and you sing songs of praise?”

We are here today to sing a new song.  We aspire to the day when all of humanity can sing “Mi Khamokha” together. We drink and draw inspiration from new waters. In the face of continual struggle, desire to conquer and possess the land and exclusion of “the Other,” we say “Occupation is not our Judaism,” and “Not every Israeli or Zionist is our enemy.”  We work for the day when liberation does not require suffering or destruction for another people.  In recent years, as we have made Tu B’Shvat a day to plant trees with Paletinian farmers, as well as with Jews, we are met with something between scorn and anger, “You are stealing our holiday.”  But we are adding a new ring to the Tree of Life, another gilgul of Tu B’Shvat.  Our planting is a statement that we all have a place and roots in this Land.

Our new ring is in a sense a correction, and a return.  In Israel today one can see Bratslaver hasidim praying next to trees in the middle of the night.  As Naomi Shemer made famous by putting the words of Rebbe Nakhman to music, he taught that it was important to pray in fields and next to trees, because every tree and every blade of grass and every shepherd has its/his/her unique melody that joins a grand chorus in praise of God.  Some of the Bratslaver Hasidim (only some) are known for being radical and violent settlers.  They miss the point that each of us and each people in this land has a melody to add to that chorus. It is the holiness arising from that chorus that connects us with the holiness of the Land of Israel.  Rebbe Nakhman also wrote a prayer for peace, asking that we all realize that we were not put in this world for conflict, hatred, envy and bloodshed, but rather to recognize God’s sovereignty that unifies all.  Through recognizing God’s Oneness that unifies us all, we are to bring peace and justice to the land.

Finally, the Tu B’Shvat seder includes 4 cups and different types of fruits, symbolizing the 4 Kabbalistic worlds and the passage through the different seasons of the year.  I believe that they also symbolize four stages of activism.  We grow stronger.  We start in the deep freeze of winter in the lowest and weakest world, in which we feel despair and powerlessness, or just don’t care. We move to the world of Yetzirah, where something awakens in us like the first stirrings of seeds deep in the earth.  We feel pangs of conscience, signs of awakening, of a belief in our ability to make a difference.  However, our feelings are still amorphous, without analysis, or a plan of action.  We move to the summer of the world of briah, of full blown activism and determination.  Finally we achieve the fall harvest, the world of atzilut, in which Divine Inspiration leads us to accomplishments.  (And frankly, we may then move again to a winter stage  where we take a pause, and replenish our energies.  However, we savor our accomplishments, giving us the hope that we will not be in a continuous circle, returning to where we started.  Rather, we are in a spiral, moving ever upwards.

Our presence today is a statement that we have left the deep freeze of despair, in favor of faith in God and in ourselves., and in our ability to make a difference.  We can bring about the new day we dream of, he day in which our new song will be the song of all, in which we will honor every tree and every root in this land, in which we will all celebrate the freedom that the Children of Israel celebrated at the sea, in which the true and shared Tree of Life will grow tall.


Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Tu B’Shvat

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.