Reclaiming a Tu B’shvat of Liberation

by Rabbi Brant Rosen

Today marks Tu B’shvat, the Jewish festival that celebrates the “New Year of the Trees.” According to the Talmud Tu B’shvat marks the dividing point for the tithing of trees. Throughout the centuries, this festival has been announced by the blossoming of the white almond blossoms that proliferate throughout the central and northern parts of the land of Israel.

As a celebration of the natural world and the tentative beginnings of spring, Tu B’shvat has been celebrated in different ways during different eras of Jewish history and through a variety of Jewish cultural contexts around the world. But with the rise of the Zionist movement and the establishment of the state of Israel, Tu B’shvat has become, for many Jews, almost exclusively associated with the Jewish National Fund’s fund raising efforts to plant pine forests throughout modern-day Israel.

In the previous blog post, my friend and colleague Cantor Michael Davis eloquently underlined the darker legacy of this particular Tu B’shvat observance, noting that the JNF’s mission to create Jewish facts on the land has led to tragedy for the Palestinian people.  Might there be a way to decouple Tu B’shvat from this destructive legacy of colonialism and disenfranchisement? I’d like to suggest one possibility:

I’ve long noticed the power of celebrating this “harbinger of spring” in the colder climates of the northern-hemisphere diaspora, where we are barely one month into winter and the landscape is filled not by the white of newly-budding almond blossoms, but by the white of snow-covered trees.

While some might think this would be an unlikely setting to celebrate Tu B’shvat, I actually find it quite profound to contemplate the coming of Spring in the midst of a Chicago winter. It comes to remind us that even during this dark, often bitterly cold season, there are unseen forces at work preparing our world for renewal and rebirth. Deep beneath the ground, the sap is beginning to rise in the roots of our trees. In the chilly diaspora, we can celebrate the invisible forces of liberation reborn underground even as the prison of winter seems to reign above.

Thus we observe Tu B’shvat as a welcome reminder that spring will always follow winter; that even in the coldest and darkest of times, the unseen power of liberation will inexorably rise up.

I encourage you to reclaim Tu B’shvat as a celebration of liberation: seasonal, spiritual, political, or all of the above.


Ta’anit Teshuvah: A High Holiday Fast for Palestinian Human Rights

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

It is a tradition for the pious to fast from dawn to dusk during the Ten Days of Teshuvah, as it is written, “I am with them in distress.” (Psalm 91:15) Suffering is ever before us. We mourn the unnecessary loss of life that stems from preventable harm: racial, gender and economic oppression, police violence, military occupation, forced dispossession and deadly conflict. These harmful conditions deny millions of people the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. During the holy days, we take time to heal our broken hearts, nurture our capacity for reconciliation, and breathe new life into our shared struggle for a just and compassionate world. We do this so we can lovingly and fiercely pursue justice and peace over the long haul.

In 2011 Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence initiated a Ta’anit Teshuvah during the seven intermediate days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Ta’anit Teshuvah culminates in renewing a shomer shalom vow of nonviolence during Kol Nidre.

Why fast? Public fasting gives witness to calamities. Public fasting is an act of remorse and reconciliation. Public fasting is also a call to action!

On the third of Tishri, a person who wants to undertake the fast proclaims the following before two witnesses:

I, ______________, take upon myself a Ta’anit Teshuvah from the third of Tishri through Yom Hakippurim. May this fast purify my heart so I can become a steward of nonviolence and reparative justice, compassion and peace throughout the year. I undertake this fast to (insert your intention). When this period of fasting is over, may I (as a shomeret shalom) continue to fulfill my obligation to engage in acts of nonviolence, reparative justice and reconciliation. Amen.

This year, JVP is focused on stopping the Prawer Plan, which is one more link in the long, unbearable chain of persecution that has bound Palestinians to continuous oppression for the past sixty years. You can dedicate your fasting to stopping the Prawer Plan by wearing white, and pinning a mourning ribbon on your clothes that says, “Stop Prawer.” (Click here to see what other actions you can take during the High Holy Day season to stop the Prawer Plan.)

I am also fasting to give public witness to the persecution of Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos by the United States in the form of police brutality, the war on drugs and gangs, closing of schools, mass incarceration, the militarization of the border, deportation and economic exploitation. One Oakland pastor who oversees the prophetic ministry program of his church lamented that it feels like a holocaust. “We are literally being locked up or killed in the streets while white America goes about its business as if nothing is happening.”

Recently, Noura Khouri and I initiated the Facing Urban Shield Action Network in the Bay Area which is composed of over 20 organizations that address different aspects of the militarization of police. Urban Shield is the weapons trade show and training ground for police agencies from the US and around the world. The IDF is connected to Urban Shield. Protesting Urban Shield is an opportunity to link domestic and international struggles against occupation, incarceration and war and build the global movement for justice and peace.

JVP is a place for alternative community building, a place where we commit to honoring the dignity of every human being, a place where we experiment with the methodology of nonviolence, a place where we live into a world rooted in creativity, resiliency, reconciliation and love. We are not afraid to struggle, to stand up for our rights and the rights of others. During this season of fasting, let us go into the streets and proclaim publicly:

This is the fast we have chosen:
Shatter the chains of oppression.
Unbind the yoke of unethical action from around our necks.
Dismantle prisons and end administrative detention.
Stop policies of dispossession
and let the oppressed move freely throughout the land.
Break the hold of corporate greed
Redistribute bread and resources to hungry
Build affordable housing
and establish a living wage.
Do not withhold a helping hand.
See every person as sister/brother
And banish violence from the land.
Then shall our inner light break forth
as the light of dawn.

(A riff on Isaiah 58)

There Were Three Trees in the Garden: A Midrash

by Rabbinical Student Alana Alpert

In Al Arakhib, tree planted by JNF

And the Lord God caused to sprout from the ground every tree pleasant to see and good to eat, and the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)

There were three forbidden trees in the garden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, and the Tree of Violence. The Tree of Violence is placed just behind the Tree of Knowledge, for it only takes effect after you become aware of right and wrong. When you eat of its fruit, what you have learned to be true will become false and what you have learned to love will turn against you. Were Adam and Eve to eat of this fruit they would not have been banished – remaining in the Garden of Eden, suddenly a scary place, would have been punishment enough.

It’s been hard year in Israel, when things that had once seemed benign, good, or even perfect, slowly become shadowy, even threatening: A Jewish star, a blue box, a flag…

There is a particular pain that comes when my religious and cultural symbols are being disfigured, when violence is being done to and issuing from them. But the sinisterization of the most basic human symbol, a tree, is a crime even harder to digest. The Jewish National Fund in Israel is using trees as tools of displacement, as facts on the ground, as soldiers in the quiet war against the Bedouin in the Negev. I will not easily forgive the JNF for making a tree something to fear.

But this is bigger than the JNF. Here are just a few examples of places around the country I have visited recently where theft is being perpetrated in the name of the environment:

West Bank: Wadi Kana has been declared a nature reserve by the Civil Administration and Palestinian farmers have been told to uproot 2000 trees from their own lands or pay for the cost of the bulldozers themselves. Of course, this designation has not affected over 100 buildings built within the “nature reserve” by Jewish settlements, which by the Civil Administration’s own law are illegal.

East Jerusalem: growth of the Palestinian neighborhoods of Issawiya and A-Tur is being prevented by the designation of parts of their lands as a national park.

Negev: the village of Al Arakhib has been destroyed and is being forested, in an effort to force its residents to move to the recognized Bedouin village of Rahat.

I offer the words of naturalist Enos Mills:

The forests are the flags of nature. They appeal to all and awaken inspiring universal feelings. Enter the forest and the boundaries of nations are forgotten.  It may be that some time an immortal pine will be the flag of a united peaceful world.

Ken yehi ratzon – May it be God’s will.

To read more about the “forestation” Al Arakhib and take action, click here.

To read more about the “Nature Reserve” in Wadi Kana and take action, click here.

To read more about “National Parks” in East Jerusalem, click here.