Tu B’Shevat and Dr King (Rabbi Shalhevet)

Rabbi Jaimee ShalhevetTu B’Shevat this year falls on January 17th. This year it shares its date with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Here in America, Tu B’shevat makes no sense. I admit it. It’s the New Year of the trees, when we celebrate the beginning of the blossoming of the buds, the young sprouts first emerging from the soil, the entering of spring. And it’s in January. The trees are bare, the blossoms are non-existent, the ground is frozen, and we are still facing the cold prospect of February. In America, Tu B’shevat makes no sense. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, while Dr. King was still alive, was just another day. It had not yet gained the power it has today. Unfortunately, Dr. King had to fight for what we celebrate and commemorate on that day. It didn’t yet exist in his lifetime. Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes to celebrate freedom for all, civil rights, peace amongst the races, and unity in our country. That’s what Dr. King preached. It’s what he peacefully fought for. And sometimes, sadly, we celebrate the day bearing his name knowing that it has not come to fruition as he would have hoped.

Back to Tu B’Shevat for a moment. I remember my two years spent in Israel. Israel, the country where all the Jewish holidays fall into place. In my mind, Israel has two seasons: “Oy! It’s so hot and dry!” and “Oy! It’s so cold and wet!” The Hot and dry season lasts from Passover to Sukkot – exactly the amount of time we spend praying for dew in our G’vurot prayer. The cold and wet season lasts from Simchat Torah back to Passover, gradually getting warmer and dryer starting – you guessed it, around January. I was lucky enough to live through these seasons in Israel twice. Let me tell you, when it rained for the first time in months on Erev Sukkot and people danced in the wet streets, it truly felt like Sukkot. And I vividly remember walking to my school, Hebrew Union College one day in January. The incredible cold spell had just finally lifted so I was able to walk (albeit briskly) wearing my autumn jacket. As I walked, I took a deep breath, enjoying the day’s warmth. I happened to glance at the grass next to the sidewalk. And there it was, by my feet, in the middle of January, the first tulip sprout gingerly poking its head out of the ground. I looked up and saw an almond tree, the first tree in Israel to blossom, with its beautiful light pink and white blossoms. “Wow,” I thought, “what a perfectly beautiful day.” Then it struck me. I looked at my calendar. Yep, today was Tu B’Shevat.

I stopped in my tracks. I stopped my feet, I stopped my breathing, I stopped my thoughts. I just stood there, in the middle of a sidewalk in Jerusalem and breathed in the fragrance of the almond blossoms. I soaked in the light of the January sun. I unzipped my coat and felt the warmth of the New Year of the Trees come to life as it had never done for me before.

Back to Dr. King. We can make his day of memory meaningful too. Not by waiting for trees to bloom, but by making relationships blossom. By confronting that part of ourselves that is falling short of his vision and by learning how to better connect with our fellow brothers and sisters. This year, on January 14th, please join me as we celebrate Tu B’Shevat and Martin Luther King Jr. Day at a very special Shabbat service. And during the week before, please look out in your emails for information on a program about diversity where you can actually take part in changing the damaging racial perspectives still raging today. Make a difference just by attending and opening your hearts to truth.

This year, when the Winter winds whip through the bare branches of the trees and when the moon greets us at 4:30 in the afternoon, I will remember Tu B’Shevat in Jerusalem. This year, when snow covers the ground where the tulips will one day appear, and my long down coat is wrapped around me, I will remember Tu B’Shevat in Jerusalem. I will close my eyes and return to where Tu B’Shevat makes sense. I will smell almond spices and feel the warmth of the sun. And I will endeavor to share that feeling with all I meet. I pray for all of us to have the strength to see us through this winter again and hopefully blossom into a beautiful spring. May Tu’ B’Shevat herald in that time of rebirth and renewal.