It is a tree of life to those who hold it close and all of its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths lead to peace. Proverbs 3:18
This was one of the very first Hebrew songs I learned. Even as a young child, I knew it was special because it was the melody we sang as we ushered the Torah back into the aron hakodesh — the holy ark where it is kept.
The book of Proverbs, attributed to King Solomon, was written during a time when even our royalty was more innately connected to the earth than your average suburban or city-living Jew today. King Solomon — and most who lived in ancient Israel — surely understood the tremendous power of the metaphor associating Torah with a tree. Just as a tree has roots and branches, so too does Torah. Its roots date back some 3,300 years, to the Jewish narrative of Mt. Sinai — and even earlier, to the formative stories of our people that it tells. Its branches stretch well into the future, carrying generations of Jews who have, through the process of intellectual debate and spiritual discovery, enabled Judaism to evolve and continue to speak the language of modern society. Just as a tree produces fruit, so too does Torah. This fruit comes in the form of mitzvot, or commandments — active ingredients in a recipe for purposeful living. As children, we cherish the opportunity to climb a tree. So too, we strive to ascend Torah, grasping its multiple branches of interpretation and reaching for higher meaning.
Our Rabbis’ decision to celebrate this metaphor offers a good hint not only at how their society felt about the Torah, but also how they related to trees. The Torah is precious. We hold the Torah, kiss it before and after we read from it, and do everything we can to prevent it from falling. So too, we understand that we must care for our trees. We can swing from their branches, but we must be careful not to break them. We can eat from their fruit, but we are forbidden from destroying the forests they comprise.
This past Wednesday, Jews around the world celebrated Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. First documented in the Mishnah in about 200 CE, Tu Bishvat falls in the midst of winter, when trees are bare — not a time when one might expect a holiday that celebrates the glory of nature. And yet, maybe that is the very reason why this date was so aptly picked. It is at this time, when we are not necessarily cognizant of the beauty of the trees around us, that we most need a holiday to remind us of their ultimate potential. In this midway point of winter, the sap begins to travel up the roots, enabling the buds to form and flowers to bloom in the coming months of spring. Once spring arrives, we will likely be more cognizant of our relationship with the natural world, but during the winter we need a nudge to remind us of the glorious process of renewal that lies ahead.
In recent years, Tu Bishvat has been adopted by environmentalists as a Jewish earth day of sorts. Through an effort to combine Jewish spirituality and environmental action, Jewish environmentalists have stood alongside other religious activists in using a sacred voice to advocate for the future of our planet.
The midrash from Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:19 reads, “When God created Adam, God took him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘See how wonderful and praiseworthy all of my creations are. Everything I have created, I created for you. Be careful not to destroy My world; for if you destroy it, there is no one who will fix it after you.’”
This midrash was written 1300 years ago, yet it could not ring more true for us today. We are in the midst of environmental crisis. We must make thoughtful, resolute steps if we wish to live in a world with clean air, edible and healthful food, and a stable climate. The vitality of creation depends on our ability to find sustainable ways of stewarding our planet, and this will only come through a combination of personal commitments and governmental legislation.
This year Tu Bishvat fell during the week of the Interfaith Power and Light National Preach-In on Global Warming. The preach-in is an effort to encourage religious leaders throughout our nation to speak to their communities about the devastating impact we continue to have on our planet. As we humans engage in the burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and problematic agricultural and industrial activities, we unleash billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the environment. This carbon dioxide mixes with water vapor and other gasses in the atmosphere, trapping heat like the glass on a greenhouse and creating devastating climate change here on earth. “The vast majority of scientists now agree that our climate is being threatened in an unprecedented way,” Asserts the Reverend Sally Bingham, Founder and President of IPL, “And we’re already seeing and feeling some of the devastating consequences. I have always maintained that religious people should lead the environmental movement. If we aren’t going to take care of creation, we can’t expect others to. People from all religions have a shared purpose in doing our part to keep God’s earth clean and healthy for the future.”
Congregants in synagogues, churches, and mosques throughout the country will be offered 5×7 postcards at services this weekend that they can mail to their senators, asking them to own their moral responsibility and support the Clean Air Act.
Bingham asserts that religious leaders not only have a responsibility to speak the truth, but also have a unique ability to reach those who have not yet thought deeply about these issues. She tells congregants that the environment is not a political issue, but rather one of theology – “It’s a matter of life and death.” People often respond by saying: “I’ve just never thought of it like that – this means something to me and is going to make a difference in my life and the way I behave.”
In Judaism, we do a lot of thinking, debating, and reflecting – but the beauty of Judaism is that it is not simply esoteric and spiritual; it is also grounded and practical. Ideally, all of these discussions lead us to action that will improve our communities and our world. As we move from Tu Bishvat into National Preach-In Shabbat, may we be resolute about turning our intentions into action. It is time to take an account of our carbon footprint and recommit ourselves to environmental action — both through personal reform and national advocacy — before it’s too late.
February is the shortest month of the year, yet to me it always feels like the longest. There is something about the short cold days, the lack of sun that makes my spirits take a dive. This time of year I have to gather around me anything that brings me comfort to keep myself going. Luckily, over the years, I have developed a wealth of resources. I want to offer a couple of them to you with the hope that someone will find them helpful in their own life.
The first resource I turn to is prayer. I find two different kinds of prayer helpful. The first kind is the prayer of my heart. For this prayer, I don’t need the liturgy in the prayer book. I just need a quite space where I can close my eyes and direct my thoughts towards God. In these moments I talk to God. I simply share my thoughts, worries and anxieties. Sometimes I even blame God and express anger over something in my life. “Why does it have to be this way?” I shout in my head. Having a place to direct these thoughts and feeling calms and comforts me.
Then, I turn to more traditional prayers, the Psalms. “Out of the depths I call to you God!” cries out Pslam 118:5 . “And you answered me out of the great expanse.” You answered me. YOU answered ME. How great would it be to have God answer me, to know that everything will be alright, to know that spring is just around the corner. A funny thing happens when I chant these verses over and over to myself. After a while, I do feel like I hear an answer. I feel like God hears me that God is there for me. I relax and feel less alone.
Then, I continue to read Psalm 118 and come to verse 14. I like the translation and tune used by Rabbi Shefa God, “My Strength (balanced) with the Song of God will be my salvation.” I need this reminder of my own strength. I am strong. It just gets lost in the cold days and the pressures of daily life. So, here is my reminder to find it again. To connect to that place within me that gives me energy, love for my family, and passion for my work. I chant these verses and find my strength again.
Now I feel strong and cared for by God. Sometimes this is enough. I can stop my practice here. But at other times I still need to bring more light into my life.
Then, I turn to a gratitude practice. Several studies have shown that increasing a sense of gratitude in your life will increase happiness. Jewish liturgy has numerous prayers of gratitude. One of my favorites is Modeh Ani – which says “I am grateful to You, the living and enduring God, for restoring my soul to me in compassion. You are faithful beyond measure.” Traditionally said upon awakening in the morning, this prayer thanks God for life itself. I like to start there, being thankful for life itself. Without life, I could not have the other good things in my life. After reciting the prayer I make a list of the things in life I am thankful for. Usually this list lifts my spirits and then I can turn to Psalm 30; “I extol You O God for You have lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me. O God, I cried out to You and You healed me.”
Am I fully cured from the February Blues? I don’t know if there is a cure. But I do feel healed. Healing is different from curing. Even when someone is very sick, I have witnessed that they can experience healing. Emotional healing and/or spiritual healing is always possible. The prayers and practices I shared help me feel healed. They help give me the strength I need to carry on with life when life is not so fun to live. Maybe these practices are only helpful to me. But given that these Psalms and prayer shave been passed down for generations, I may not be the only one to experience their healing power. I hope you can too.
As I write today’s blog entry on Tu Bishvat, I’m sitting in my home office looking at the piles of paper that I need to sort and file in order to begin getting things in order for filing my taxes this year. Its never something that I particularly look forward to, and I’m sure much procrastination will ensue before I actually succumb to the task. Yet this task that remains at hand, and today’s festival have much more in common than you might imagine.
Today, when we think of the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, we think of a Jewish Arbor Day; a day to give thanks for trees, the fruit of the trees, and the beauty of our natural world. Some might think of the Kabbalists’ “Tu Bishvat Seder“ ritual which utilized different kinds of fruits symbolically to take the participant on a journey into the different levels of the soul. However, relatively few will be thinking of the historical origins of Tu Bishvat, derived by the rabbis of old from a commandment in the Torah:
“When you enter the land [of Israel] and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten” (Leviticus 19:23).
As explained on the main pages on Tu Bishvat on myjewishlearning.com, ‘when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Tu Bishvat served as the day on which farmers offered the first fruits of the trees they planted, after the trees had turned four years old. The following Tu Bishvat signified when the farmers were allowed to begin making use of the produce of the trees they planted, whether for personal or economic reasons.’ The Rabbis of the Talmud established the 15th day (Tu) of the month of Shvat as the official “birthday” of trees from which to determine the age of the trees.
Today we no longer have a temple and relatively few of us are farmers (although there are some wonderful programs engaging a whole new generation of Jews in farming and growing food locally, such as the Adamah fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Center in the CT Berkshires, and the Kayam Fellowship at the Pearlstone Center near Baltimore, MD). Tithing is a term that is more frequently used in churches than synagogues. Perhaps the closest modern-day equivalent would be the paying of our taxes.
While tzedakah (acts of righteousness, including but not limited to monetary charity) is regarded as an obligation in Jewish tradition it is, nevertheless, a choice as to how we give, when we give, and how much. Tithing in biblical times, and paying our taxes today are obligations that fall upon us at particular times, with consequences if we fail to respond.
What is of spiritual and communal significance is that, looking back at the biblical and rabbinic sources, the farmer had an obligation to tithe from the fourth year’s produce and only then could they begin to reap the benefits for themselves. This was part of the biblical understanding that when we reap rewards, even from our own labors, we first give in recognition that we should never see ourselves as the sole agent in our success. We give thanks to the Source of Existence, and we give for the sake and for the needs of the community at large, recognizing that our place in the economic and social landscape is intrinsically linked and benefits from the broader society within which we operate. We begin by designating a portion of the year’s income as ‘not mine’. From there we figure out how to live with the rest of our portion. We might feel a little differently about paying our taxes if we tried on this framework for size, rather than seeing the government as ‘taking’ something away from us.
This Tu Bishvat I find myself considering the wisdom of this ethical framework and spiritual lesson to current conversations about U.S. tax codes, the obligations of the wealthy to pay a fair share, and the ways we talk about our obligations to ensure the well-being of all in our society. How different our communal, political, and media narratives might sound if we embraced some of these lessons today.
Last summer when I made my first tentative foray into camping in the wilderness, I was shepherded by my three very able young adult children, who were more experienced, savvy and courageous than I had been. They’d done this before. Our four days of hiking together on a segment of the Appalachian Trail was very intimate — our mutual trust made our ability to help one another flow naturally. It was not only comfortable, but comforting, to share our two small tents, each only large enough for two people to lie down and stay still.
The tent is a place of safety and care. This reminds me of the Torah’s story of a welcoming tent, when three visitors came to Abraham and Sarah’s tent. Genesis 18:1 tells us how Abraham was sitting at the entrance of their tent on a hot day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. He ran to greet them and, bowing to the ground, begging them to stay to be refreshed. Abraham prepared a feast and water for his unexpected guests. He became our model for the value of hospitality. In Jewish imagination Abraham’s tent signifies graciousness and openness. In today’s modern ethos, we imagine this tent as a welcoming place for inclusive, pluralistic Jewish community.
Yet, it seems that our Jewish communal tent has shrunken in size, with its sides nearly closed, keeping out unwelcome conversation about uncomfortable topics. At the top of the list: Israel.
It has become impolitic, unwelcome, and sometimes relationship-altering to express opposing views when traveling between the camps of the right and the left. The JCPA’s “Civility” campaign was an attempt to turn down the temperature of the heated differences within our community. But beyond that there is a demonization that has become acceptable among many communal leaders, targeting those of “the other camp” as immoral, ignorant, naïve, and worse.
That was why I was so encouraged by the program at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America this past November. There were several sessions at the convention that addressed the environment of our “tent” – and how we can have a “big tent.” There was a concerted effort to re-expand the tent. I felt hopeful that this would re-humanize the conversation, returning the spirit of generosity and grace that we celebrated in the years when “We are One” was the motto of the organized Jewish community.
It was a good start, but we have a long way to go. In the three months since the GA, I have experienced and observed more painful demonization, labeling, name-calling and hostility relating to conversations or views about Israel.
Why do we need a big tent? For generations our ancestors shared a sense of mutual responsibility that was borne out of an understanding that they were one people, a kind of extended family. It was a key to our survival and our accomplishments as a people.
Today that feeling of familial mutual responsibility is fraying. Many Jewish leaders are worried about this. And here we are, tearing the fabric apart by defining who is”in” and who is “out”. It’s not good for the Jews.
I know that I have an overly romantic view of the unity of the Jewish people in the past. I like that aspiration. Aspirations are really important to what we choose to do with our resources, our words, our relationships and our efforts.
As my own children are leaving the “nest” of our home, I aspired to share something mature and real with them in our newly adult relationships. Hiking up the mountain, sleeping in those tiny tents, we could enjoy our relationships, trusting each other and the mutual love that sustains us. That was all that mattered.
The tent of the Jewish people should be a place of safety and refreshment, nourishing and cooling us when we come in from the harsh, dry air of the wilderness. To be a Jew is to be a descendant of Abraham and Sarah, open and welcoming, hospitable and generous. I dream of a big, open tent. It’s cozy inside the tent – come on in.
The Exodus from Egypt is considered to be the foundational/orienting event for our sacred history. Many commandments are attached to its memory and it can be argued that our experience there is a source for our ethics and morality. “Do not afflict the stranger because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” Morality is not only a product of reason, but of historical experience. Included in our tradition as well is a prohibition to return to Egypt. For some the Biblical source is Exodus 14:13, when just as the People came to the Red Sea and were being pursued by the Egyptians “Moses said to the people, Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today, [but] you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity.”
There are a number of explanations offered for this prohibition, but it does appear that the Torah is wary of our returning to the place of intense degradation and suffering. Egypt is the place we left from in order to become a People. Does returning there somehow undo and reverse our sacred history? Should you return to a place of oppression and suffering? Can it ever be home?
We know that this prohibition was not followed and a Jewish community flourished in Egypt since the time of the Second Temple. Traditional commentaries wrestle with this seeming violation and offer a number of justifications for Jews living in Egypt. Indeed our source of so much knowledge of our history was unearthed in the past century from the riches of the Cairo Genizah.
This particular case of Egypt comes to mind for me because last week I spent two days in Berlin with rabbis from Chicago. Berlin is a magnificent city and while many buildings are new, many damaged during the War have been restored. As Jews, it is a city central to modern Jewish history. Berlin is also a city of over 130 Holocaust memorials, many of which were constructed as grass roots efforts by the residents of the city and are scattered in many neighborhoods. There is the striking Jewish museum visited by mostly non Jews. But the German Jewish community that thrived there is no more.
This is not however, the end of the story. Berlin is a city with a Jewish community that is slowly being reconstituted with Jews from the former Soviet Union. There are two rabbinical seminaries, one Liberal and one Orthodox. They are training rabbis to serve throughout Germany. Chabad is there as well. Yet one wonders: is this the place Jews should return to after the horrors of the Holocaust? Even as Germany has recognized itself as the perpetrator of the crime, should Jewish civilization reconstitute itself here?
In 1961, Gershom Scholem spoke in Israel at a program celebrating Martin Buber’s translation of the Bible into German, a project begun by him and Franz Rosenzweig in Berlin before the War. Scholem ended his speech with: “For many of us the living sound you tried to evoke in the German language has faded away. Will anyone be found to take it up again?” On my recent trip the German born Masorati rabbi in Berlin, when asked what it meant to live in a city and country that sought to annihilate us answered: Where else can you read Zunz, Buber and Rosenzweig in the original? And finally when asked why go into the rabbinate in Germany, one of the rabbis responded that they were engaged in the ultimate rebuttal of Hitler.
This week has been a heavy one for the Jewish people and an indescribably difficult one for the parents of young Ayelet Galena zt”l who left this world Monday morning. Ayelet was two years old and was diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disorder called dyskeratosis congenita.
Ayelet’s struggle for life became everyone’s struggle. Her parents utilizing social media, particularly Facebook, updated her close to 6,000 “fans” on a regular basis. The images of little Ayelet simultaneously exhibiting so much will to life and yet so much suffering and pain, united thousands of people to do something. Many people prayed for her daily; others baked challah in her merit, while others re-posted the updates from her parents to their social circles often, thereby expanding the circle of support and care by leaps and bounds.
The loss of Ayelet is not just the loss of one beautiful little girl. It is not just the loss of the potential for her life and all that she might have accomplished. It is both of those things but also so much more. The Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin teaches us that the loss of a single life is as if an entire world was lost forever. There are generations of descendants from Ayelet the world will never know. There are countless people who would have been touched by her life who will not have that experience. In chaos theory there exists a concept called the butterfly effect in which one small change can bring about tremendous results that would be impossible to anticipate. The loss of Ayelet is not just a small change to the world, it is an enormous change, and the impact that she would have brought to her family, her people and the rest of humanity, will never be known.
Yet, the Mishnah also teaches us the converse as well. One who saves a life is as if she or he saved the entire world. And there is no doubt that the heart wrenching struggle for life waged by Ayelet and her family, broadcast to the world has brought about so much good. One often wonders how much they can truly impact the world. What difference can I really have in a global community of over seven billion people? The story of Ayelet is the loudest protest possible against the proposition that our lives do not and cannot matter. Each one of us can make such a tremendous difference.
Of all the actions that occurred to express support with Ayelet and her family, perhaps the most impactful of them all was the organization of countless cheek swabbing drives to add people to the bone marrow registry of Gift of Life and the also important fundraising drives for Gift of Life. Because of those cheek swabbing drives, when Ayelet tragically left this world on Monday morning, 21 people had found their lives saved through the bone marrow registry and the registration of all those new people. Twenty one people in this world owe their lives to the good will of complete strangers who were inspired at the very deepest levels to act because of Ayelet Galena zt”l. In other words, because of Ayelet there now exists another twenty one worlds of human life and meaning.
This is the impact of one person. One two year old child was able to galvanize people to give of themselves and restore life to another twenty one people. If we learn anything from the tragedy of the loss of Ayelet let it be two ideas: 1) Donate to Gift of Life and register with Gift of Life. Each registration to the list costs money; the more people who are registered the greater chance that another human being can live another day and if you have not done so already, take that simple cheek swab and become part of the registry. 2) Anytime you feel your life does not matter, anytime you are confident that the world would be no worse or better with or without you, remember Ayelet. The struggle of one small child restored life to twenty one people. Ponder and reflect on that because you never know how and in what way you will make that difference.
The expression “black hat” denotes Jews who are extremely observant in their religious practices. They wear black fedora hats on special occasions, including the weekly holiday of Shabbat. Some come from Hasidic families, but many do not. They are somewhere between Modern Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox. The men dress this way to show respect to their past and uniformity in their community.
My sister and I both grew up in a traditional Jewish family in the Bronx with our Polish immigrant extended family. She found her observant lifestyle in Israel while working and living there in the early 1970s. Now, nearly forty years later, her family has blossomed to include nine children and 27 grandchildren.
As I stood amidst the sea of black hats and dresses, I asked myself yet again, “Why all the black on such joyous occasions?”
I learned that the medieval church and state demanded that Jews wear black at all times. At that time, European countries generally decreed so-called “sumptuary” laws (the Latin word sumere refers to spending or consuming). These laws required each social class in the feudal system to wear clothes appropriate to its rank. Hence, the upper class wore gaudy clothes of many colors and ornamented profusely. By law, Jews were non-persons and had to wear black clothes so they could be immediately identified.
Black clothes are also known to Jews as an expression of divrei yirat shamayim, “fearing heaven.” To some Jews, life is very serious, and the Jew is always conscious of his relationship to God. Black is worn so as to avoid frivolity. Black is a statement of values.
As I surveyed the invited guests, I realized that though everyone looks similar, they are as unique as you and I. I knew many of these guests, and I saw that their outer clothing did not hide their true beings. In Jewish tradition, what makes an individual is not the clothing but the character.
My family is part of a community of people that all dress the same. There is only one way to stand out: You have to be original not with your clothing but in your character. You are judged not by what you wear but by how you treat people. Fashion statements come and go; what is hip today may not be hip tomorrow.
I wore my black dress and black shoes in deference to their tradition. I didn’t stand out. I blended in with my beautiful nieces and nephews. I actually felt safe doing so.
I hope my character was my defining essence. I am okay with that.