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.