Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Tu B’Shevat: More to it than just planting trees

In Uncategorized on February 2, 2009 at 5:20 pm

It was a neat trick for Jews to survive in the diaspora for nearly two thousand years without a nation state. Jewish life, Jewish literature, even a Jewish language (yiddish) thrived without the aid of a homeland. In hard times, like now, there are those who may ask, now that they might feel secure in their host countries, what benefit does Israel have for us now?

Yes, it is true that Judaism evolved without a nation state for millennia, but it is also true that the hope of having one, contributed greatly to its continued existence. Once the dream came to fruition, national needs spawned a cultural life that demonstrated a visceral spiritual vitality that only a home of ones own can generate.

Tu B’Shevat is a case in point. Originally, Tu B’Shevat was the end of the fiscal year for tithing from fruit trees. This is a modest primary source for any holiday, to say the least. The day, took on Kabbalistic resonance thirteen hundred years later because of the verse “For a man is a tree of the field”. The mystics created a seder for Tu B’Shevat that glorified creation and the interaction between God, the Torah and nature. The Seder was not something that was widely practiced and because the Holy Land was desolate for centuries, there was also no practical reason to know when the Talmudic fiscal year for fruit trees would begin.

Because Israel was a desolate land that required greening, all of the sudden Tu B’Shevat morphs into the Jewish arbor day. Jews throughout the world “bought” trees to be planted in Israel. The campaign was so successful that the pre-1967 borders of Israel is called the Green line. A stark representation of Jewish enterprise in contrast to those who preceded Jewish settlement.

Coupled with the Zionist campaign to green Israel, the 60’s brought a renewed interest in Jewish mysticism. The Tu B’Shevat seder re-emerged and was celebrated by mystics and non-mystics alike. This only happened because Tu B’Shevat was already part of the Jewish calendar/consciousness, and had become a national holiday.

Nowadays, Tu B’Shevat has gone beyond the borders of Israel and has taken on an identity transcendent of its origins. Every Israeli is aware of Tu B’Shevat and its significance, but more impressive is the fact that this material awakening of a land revived a spiritual awakening where Jews celebrate and rededicate their commitment to be good stewards of the planet, The National Arbor day has morphed into a Jewish earth day.

Without a nation state, it’s hard to imagine that this would have been possible.

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