Chag Ilanot Sameach!
Tonight begins Tu Bishvat, the ‘birthday of the trees.’ Tu Bishvat, in the days of our ancient ancestors, was when you celebrated a coming arboreal harvest. The trees that were being celebrated had ‘made it through’ the winter, several times in fact. They were counted because our ancestors were confident that soon they would start to bear fruit. With that fruit, of course, came the obligation to bring bikkurim, first fruit offerings, to the Temple in Jerusalem.
It doesn’t necessarily feel like a ‘tree holiday’ here in Canada. When we look outside, we don’t see flowering trees that have survived the harshest rains. We see ice. We see snow. Yet, these seasonal festivals are one of the things which make the Jewish people special and different. Our calendar isn’t set by the land that we live in. Rather, our calendar is set by the seasons of the land of Israel.
Master educator Avrahm Infeld has a story about this clash between the seasons and the Jewish calendar. He writes:
“As a child in South Africa, I remember asking my father to explain why we prayed for rain in the summer. It was December, and in synagogue the prayers included a request for rain, which no child in South Africa wants at that time of year! My father’s answer was very straightforward: “Our rain doesn’t fall in South Africa; it falls in Israel!
Try growing up normal with an answer like that! But being Jewish is not being normal. Being Jewish means living with the knowledge that irrespective of where you actually live, it is only in the land of Israel that the Jewish People are indigenous. With the lesson of the rain my father taught me about the deep connection between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel. As individuals, we can pray for rain in South Africa, or wherever else we may live, but the Jewish People’s collective rain falls in Israel.”
At this time in our people’s history, where one of the great accusations against us that is being leveled again and again is “You don’t belong in the land of Israel. You are settlers. You are a colonialist. You should go back to where you came from.” Tu Bishvat refutes this narrative. Our link to Israel is not something established in 1948, or in 1897, or at any other date in the last few centuries. Our link to the land of Israel is so core to our religious and national identity, that the ancient calendar Jews have used for millennia reflects its time and tides.
So, if this year you looked out the window and thought to yourself. “Tu Bisvhat? Trees? Now? Really?” Remind yourself of this special connection. Even this small festival validates the ancient love we have for our sacred land.
While we remain in the grasp of winter, the red anemone (the national flower of the state of Israel) is blossoming in the south, along the border of Gaza, promising that soon spring- and all its promise of redemption- will come.
With God’s help, so may it be for us as well.