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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Mother earth

Galilee Diary #217
January 23, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

More than perhaps any other holiday in the Jewish calendar, Tu Beshvat has been reinvented in modern Israel. For each of the holidays, of course, their modern reincarnations in Israel – even, in many cases, for the Orthodox – have taken on practices and meanings unknown a century ago. In the case of Chanukah, for example, we rehabilitated the Maccabees and their military victory. In the case of Pesach and Shavuot, agricultural motifs took on new life in the people’s consciousness. But in the case of Tu Beshvat, we essentially created a holiday “out of nothing.” Barely a blip on the calendar, purely a technical date marking the turn of the year for purposes of calculating tithes (See Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1), it inspired 16th century kabbalists who found mystical significance in eating and blessing the fruit of trees as a tikkun (“repair”) to the world that we had damaged in the affair of the forbidden fruit we ate in Eden. But this custom remained largely unknown outside that community.

The day only became anything like a holiday in the 20th century, as Zionists seized on it. For example, the prominent historian and educator, Joseph Klausner, wrote in 1920:

[Tu Beshvat] is a reminder to us that we will not leave father nature and mother earth; that the land is holy in the most exalted religious national sanctity; …that the people and the tree will be bound together and will not be separated, on the good land that was given to our ancestors and to us to eat of its fruit and to be satisfied with its plenty – and in the end, that as long as we have a closeness and sensitivity to nature as expressed in the holiday of Tu Beshvat, we will be rooted in the soil and all the evil winds that blow on us from all sides will not move us from our place. Let this minor holiday arouse in us the desire to be rooted in our land like a green tree in the earth of its orchard… and then the spring will come also for us, then a new year will begin for us as for the trees in our beloved land, after the cold winter of exile.

After centuries of being luftmenschen, “air people,” living in other people’s lands, never at home, always vulnerable, living from commerce (not from the soil like “normal” people), we had come home. There was probably no image that expressed our image of our new selves more aptly than the tree: rooted deeply in the soil, standing proud (because of those roots) through years of vicissitudes – flood and drought – providing shade, producing useful and beautiful fruit. Trees were everything that exilic Jews were not (in the Zionist imagination). And so Tu Beshvat was tuned exactly to the right pitch; it celebrated our being born anew with a different kind of identity. Not to mention, of course, that the newly invented custom of planting trees on Tu Beshvat moved from this poetic image to an actual act, a Zionist mitzvah that linked together building the new society, restoring the land and ourselves, and showing faith in the future.

In preparing a Tu Beshvat seder for a group of teachers this year, I put in Klausner’s words, but then had second thoughts. The fierce debate in Israel today between those who support the disengagement from Gaza (and the ultimate withdrawal from other territories occupied in 1967), and those who oppose it often revolves around rhetoric exactly like Klausner’s. Today the division in Israel can be understood as between those who sanctify the land and those who sanctify the state, between those who say the [divinely ordained] duty to be rooted in the land transcends the duty to obey the law of the temporal state – even if it is a Jewish state, and those who say that “the law of the state is the law.”

On the one hand, it is sort of frustrating that Tu Beshvat has lost its innocence, that it is hard to separate its spiritual message (with its romantic nationalist overtones) from the harsh tones of “politics.” On the other hand, if you don’t want to be a luftmensch, you have to get your hands dirty.

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