NEW YORK (Jan. 20)
The holiday of Tu B’Shevat which we celebrate on Feb. 1 this year is a time when many Jews gather for a special Tu B’Shevat seder, celebrating the renewal of the land of Israel and its first fruits.
The seder includes four cups of wine: The first is white wine, symbolizing winter, when seeds and plants are in a state of quiescence. In the succeeding cups, we add a bit of red wine, culminating with the fourth cup, which is completely red, symbolizing the time of fruitfulness, a time in which we can celebrate fully the fruit of our labors.
The Jewish community faces many challenging issues that threaten to bring us into discord. Tu B’Shevat provides a special opportunity for us to come together on this holiday, affirming our roles as guardians of the earth and its environment, and celebrating the birth of the land of Israel. The Jewish National Fund has always played and continues to play a role in the telling of the glorious story of the rebirth of the land of Israel.
Like a beautiful bowl of tantalizing, colorful and aromatic first fruits, in which all the fragrances, textures and appearances come together, Tu B’Shevat brings us together harmoniously.
Tu B’Shevat provides Jews the opportunity to gather together and share all their tastes: political, spiritual, personal. This is a time to get together and celebrate the beauty of life in a unique, Jewish way. As our families and communities enjoy this year’s Tu B’Shevat seder, it should be with the recognition that all Jews, and by extension all humanity, must be partners in the work of creation and renewal of the earth.
The Torah teaches: "In the beginning, there was chaos on the face of the water." Within one week we were granted all the elements of life that could sustain us, but there was a catch: These elements of life needed us in order to be sustained. That is the challenge revealed by Tu B’Shevat, a remarkably current challenge when one considers the state of the world around us today.
To understand the importance of Tu B’Shevat to Jews today, we have to turn back a few pages of time.
During the Middle Ages, as "fifth-columnites" living throughout Europe and Africa, we grew into the stereotypes that would stay with us until this day (nothing to be ashamed of, mind you) — that of bankers and financiers, or doctors and scholars.
But we longed for our agricultural "roots." We surreptitiously lit candles in the basement to remind ourselves of our heritage. We risked our lives to recall the harvest gatherings of Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot. We prayed for rain; we ate new fruits; we blessed the first fruits, the first rains and even the rainbows; we even founded spiritual sects that would seek out meditation in the wilderness, away from the concrete jungles of man’s creation.
In the decades prior to the founding of the State of Israel, Jews began collectively dreaming of a Jewish state, a place in which Jews would become one with the earth. They tried to create this Utopia in a number of places, and some of the most fantastic names emerged — Birobidzhan and Uganda, for example.
And then New Jersey. Yes, New Jersey. With the founding of Jersey Homesteads in the 1930s, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Jewish union needle trade laborers and their families had a "kibbutz" to call home. It was the dream of a Russian immigrant named Benjamin Brown, whose vision it was to get his fellow Jews back to the land — any land. It failed.
It didn’t fail because Jews don’t have green thumbs (History has taught us otherwise). It failed because there was nothing on the other side. The mission had a logical beginning and a logical ending. There was no spirituality involved.
The story of Jersey Homesteads did not die with its failure. Overlapping the same time line, the World Zionist Organization Youth and Hechalutz movement founded two agricultural training farms (hachsharot) on the exact site of Benjamin Brown’s farm and vicinity that housed hundreds of young Zionists, all of whom came to master the art of farming amid a backdrop of the Holocaust, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, hostile Ku Klux Klan neighbors and suspicious area residents. What better way to prepare for a midwife’s role of birthing the Land of Israel. One group at a time, the young agriculturalist graduates moved to Israel, joining the effort to set up kibbutzim throughout the land, thereby establishing the land of Israel.
It’s quite one thing to be a wartime general. It’s altogether another to be a peacetime general. What about today, when the world is relatively a safe place?
Or is it?
Today the Jewish threat is indifference, assimilation, intermarriage and denial.
We are still hovering over the face of the water. In order for us to create harmony with our surroundings, we must come together with other people and celebrate our differences as well as our similarities, whether among our fellow congregants at synagogue, with our families at the dinner table or with a diverse group of Jews at the Tu B’Shevat seder table.
May we join together, in unity with Jews everywhere, in using the depth of the Tu B’Shevat message to bring us close to one another, to the land of Israel and to the earth, which sustains and nurtures us all.
Rabbi Arnold Samlan is director of synagogue relations for the Jewish National Fund.