Cary Kozberg

We won’t ‘make like a tree and leave’

I write this on Rosh Hodesh Shvat which means that Tu b’Shvat, the Jewish new year of the trees, is two weeks away. This year, according to the Western calendar, it falls on January 25, exactly one month after Christmas, which raises the question: might the two holidays have anything in common?

One obvious answer is that for both holidays, TREES are central to their respective celebrations. Both occur in the middle of winter. But perhaps more significant is the fact that both holidays respectively focus on the theme of hope and redemption.

Christmas of course celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, who Christians believe is the Messiah—redeemer and savior. In the Christian calendar the weeks preceding Christmas are observed as Advent, a time of hope and anticipation, leading up to Christmas. For Christians, the season is about light and the warming love of G-d amidst the cold and dark of winter.

In Israel, Tu B’Shevat anticipates the arrival of spring, when trees are beginning to bud, and warm weather is expected (much sooner than it is here in Ohio). Many are the years when many North Americans celebrate the beginning of springtime in Israel, with snow on the ground in their respective locales. That said, just as the Christmas tree is a symbol of the hope of redemption for Christians, Tu b’Shvat’s focus on trees also evokes the hope of redemption.

Of course, when Jews and Christians speak about “redemption”, they understand the word differently. For Christians, “redemption” is salvation from sin through the blood and resurrection of their savior. In Jewish tradition, “redemption” refers to the eventual ingathering of our people from the four corners of the world back to eretz Yisrael, and the restoration of the Davidic dynasty in the person of mashiach ben Dovid, the Messiah.

Since that ingathering began in earnest with Jews returning to Zion, reclaiming the land, and resurrecting an independent Jewish political entity after 2000 years, Tu B’shevat has become a much more visible and significant holiday in the Jewish calendar. The last half century has seen the proliferation of Tu b’Shvat seders—creative adaptions of a ceremony created in 16th century by Jewish mystics. Often, these seders will include biblical passages that are reminders of G-d’s promise to return His people and to restore the land:

I will bring back the exiled of My nation, Israel. They shall rebuild ruined cities and settle. They shall plant grapes and drink their wine; they shall plant gardens and eat their fruits. I will plant them on their land, and never again will they be uprooted from the land which I gave to them, says the Lord, your G-d. (Amos 9:14-15)

The trees of the field will bear their fruit, and the land will yield its produce (Ezekiel 34:27)

I will gather you from all the countries and bring you to your land. (Ezekiel 36:24)

I will reinhabit the cities; the ruins will be rebuilt. The desolate land will be tilled there, where she was desolate in the sight of every passerby. They will say “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden.” (Ezekiel 36: 34-35)

In our time, we have witnessed these prophecies fulfilled and the hope be realized: the scattered of our people have been gathered. Ruined cities have been rebuilt. The land has been renewed: once again, Jews plant in their promised land. Trees grow on the mountains. Fruits and vegetables grow in the desert.

As mentioned, a significant aspect of this promise of redemption has historically been the coming of the Messiah who would restore David’s dynasty and usher in a time of universal peace. How and when this will occur has always been a matter of speculation. Suffice it to say that throughout history, the hope and expectation for Messiah’s immediate appearance has always increased when Jewish persecution and suffering has increased. Thus, it should be no surprise that according to the opinion of some Jews, the times in which we’re currently living meet that criterion.

But of course, no one knows for sure. As Paul Simon once sung, “the information’s unavailable to the mortal man”, and our Sages caution us against calculating “the end times”. Still, it’s important to note that the millennia-old Messianic promise itself has its roots (no pun intended) in the image of a tree:

A shoot will grow out of the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bud. And the spirit of the Lord will rest upon him… (Isaiah 11:1-2ff)

Coming back to today: despite how substantively the prophecies of old have been fulfilled in our time, there are those who willfully ignore how, with G-d’s help, our people have restored and reclaimed what was promised to us. They ignore this precisely because they deny that there ever WAS such a promise! Such denial drives the frequently repeated lies such as “Jesus was a Palestinian”, or “there never was a Jewish temple on the site of Al Aksa” or “the Jews are colonizers who took the land away from the indigenous people living there”.

Tu b’Shvat is yet another day in the Jewish calendar that denies their denial. Our Jewish focus on trees is an affirmation of our people’s place of origin and continuity in a world that, when it comes to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, wants the Jews to “make like a tree, and leave”.

The events of the past several months have shown that the opposite is more likely: We are more determined to stay “rooted” there.

And we don’t intend to be blown over or “stumped” by the hatred and falsehoods that currently abound.

About the Author
Cary Kozberg is rabbi of Temple Sholom, Springfield, Ohio.