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A Tree

The following is a collection of sermons appropriate for Tu B’Shevat, written by rabbis from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. These sermons were gathered over a period of time to serve as inspiration. We hope that they will contribute to making TuB’Shevat 5767 a time of growth and renewal for you and your congregation.


Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat
Rabbi Grinblat hopes that we can reflect about the centrality and sacredness of trees in the Jewish tradition, from biblical and Talmudic texts to the association by name with Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who perished in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster almost exactly one year ago. 

Rabbi David Wolpe
Rabbi Wolpe reviews the many texts in which trees are the quintessential expression of our relationship with God through nature - from the original Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden to the metaphor for Torah as etz chayim. The tree still stands at the center of our longings for God and redemption.
 
Rabbi David H. Lincoln
Rabbi Lincoln offers a personal reflection on returning to the sites of Holocaust destruction and finding forests planted "to cover up appalling crimes" rather than to bring joy to the universe.
 
Rabbi Jonathan A. Schnitzer
Rabbi Schnitzer looks at the way different groups of Jews throughout history have celebrated Tu B'Shevat, and also considers the contemporary environmental implications that are reflected on Tu B'Shevat.
 
Rabbi Shawn Zell
Rabbi Zell suggests the pre-existing Tu B'Shevat stories are wonderful. Perhaps it is time to cultivate a broader base and take advantage of the literature available to us that already draws on themes of Tu B'Shevat. 

Rabbi Lester Polonsky
Rabbi Polansky reviews how we can provide hope and plant seeds for a better tomorrow at a time of war and bloodshed in Israel. From the traditional planting of trees we have moved to water resources, soil conservation and environmental expertise for an ever-growing population. 

Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski
Rabbi Borodowski traces the texts regarding Miriam's well to show how...
"the clarity of waters and the vision of prophecy" join with the work of JNF to inspire us each year, especially as Tu B'Shevat falls on Shabbat Shira. 

Rabbi Michael Cohen
Rabbi Cohen analyzes how Tu B'Shevat helps capture the mystery of our long association with Eretz Yisrael. We should note with pride that the Dalai Lama has invoked Jewish experience to prepare his followers for a long exile from their land. 

Rabbi Steven Fink
Rabbi Fink offers a full sermon re-telling JNF history and statistics of acres purchased and trees planted. The last half focuses on the newest need: water resources. Will the famous Blue Box be adapted into a Blue Bottle? 

Rabbi Avraham M. I. Avnit
Rabbi Avnit suggests a play on words that allows etzem and me-etz to be interchanged for special meaning. Moses carried the bones of Joseph and his brothers with him from Egypt and the people drank water sweetened by a tree in Parshat Beshalach. 

Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff
Rabbi Rossoff portrays the planting of a JNF tree in Israel as the "perfect gift" to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah - a colleague steps us through all the possible connections: roots, branches, fruits, planting for the future. 

Rabbi James Gibson
Rabbi Gibson's sermon is a review of Jewish Messianic hopes and disappointments, helping to illuminate the counter-intuitive rabbinic teaching: "First go out and plant the sapling; then go greet the Messiah." |
"Bechol zot" and "lamrot ha-kol" are Hebrew expressions that help us through our moments of despair and disillusion, waiting for the Messiah and peace.

 

Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat
Temple Beth Shalom
Long Beach, CA

Etz Chayim: A Tree of Life

It is almost exactly one year since the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded upon re-entry, killing all 7 astronauts on board. Among them was Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut and a man whose personality and training made him a role model for many in Israel and around the world.

Ilan means tree, and as we prepare for Chag Ha'ilanot 5764 we surely reflect on the loss and legacy of Ilan Ramon and his fellow pioneers in space. Countless memorials have been planned or established to honor the victims. Trees - ilanot - are a particularly fitting way to remember Ilan Ramon on this first yahrzeit of his death.

The tree has always been a central metaphor for the Jewish people in understanding our collective life story. Jewish tradition is replete with tree imagery, and much of that imagery is associated with learning.  Every week in synagogue, we sing the verse from Proverbs, which describes Torah as an Etz chayim, "a tree of life to those that hold fast to her."  In the Talmud, those who study or teach Torah are described as trees.  Perhaps, our greatest teachers are our parents, and in American parlance, parents are described as trees.  When a child excels, we note, "An apple does not fall far from the tree."

Why are trees so central to Jewish tradition?  What does this imagery teach us about learning Torah?

Firstly, we associate trees with joy in nature.  Recall for a moment walking through a forest and feeling protected under the branches of a tree.  The image of the tree is so powerful because trees evoke the cycle of life.  Children learn with wonder how the tree grows from a tiny seed to an enormous oak or fruit tree.  The fruit then falls to the ground and provides seeds to create another tree.  The link between Torah and tree reminds us that learning should be a joyous pursuit that enhances life.  Teaching Torah entails one tree to provide seeds for a new tree; each generation passes Torah onto the next.  Each generation transmits the wisdom that it has uncovered in life, only to be reinterpreted and supplemented by the coming generation who then pass it down... The cycle continues.  Like the shade of the tree, the Torah protects us.  We learn to avoid actions that lead to spiritual or physical danger.  We learn both from the mistakes and the wisdom of previous generations how to live more fully.

Trees are part of an interdependent system of life.  As children, we learn how roots are nourished by water and sun without which the tree could not grow.  The tree takes in Carbon Dioxide and produces Oxygen, without which humans could not live.  All of these parts are needed to make the life cycle possible.  So too in learning Torah, we are all interdependent.  As Jews, we learn from our parents, teachers, and rabbis and the process is reciprocal.  As a rabbi and teacher, I learn from my students as much if not more than I teach.  We know well that it takes the interaction of parents, clergy and teachers to nourish a Jewish soul.  To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, "It takes a village to raise a mensch."

In the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 23a) R. Johanan said: "One who studies the Torah and does not teach it is like the myrtle in the desert."  The tree is desolate and all alone; the scholar's Torah knowledge is useless because it is not shared and sharpened by teaching.  Yet in that same passage, one who learns and teaches is compared to a myrtle in the desert "because it is so beloved."  Indeed, teachers of Torah are precious; they enliven the Jewish community.

Lastly, I believe that the tree image is powerful because it has roots and branches.  Hodding Carter wrote, "the only lasting bequeath we can hope to give our children is roots and wings."  As a rabbi, my goal is to help congregants to be rooted in Torah and encourage them to "branch out" and question the text.  By questioning, one makes a text one's own.

On Chag Ha’ilanot, I hope that we can reflect about the centrality and sacredness of trees within Jewish tradition.  In this way, may we nurture real trees in our world, as JNF nurtures the environment in Israel.  May we see the tree as a window into the soul of the Jewish people.  May we learn Torah in joy, recognizing that each of us is needed in order to make the Jewish community flourish.  In this way, Torah will truly be for us an Etz Chayim, a tree of life for all that hold unto her.

Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat
Temple Beth Shalom
3635 Elm Ave.
Long Beach, CA 90807
Phone: (562) 426-6413

Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat grew up in Washington, DC in a traditional Jewish home.  She attended Brown University where she studied world religions and wrote her honors thesis on the Passover Haggadah.  During this time, she discovered her calling to become a rabbi integrating her interests in Judaism, teaching, counseling, and community building.  She began by working at the American Jewish Committee in Washington, DC, developing programs on intercultural relations for the Belfer Center for American Pluralism.  She then moved to Los Angeles and attended Rabbinical school at the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.  At Ziegler, she developed her passion for Jewish text study and Talmud in particular.  Rabbi Grinblat developed her pastoral skills at Beit Tshuvah, a center for Jews recovering from alcohol and drug abuse.  At Beit Tshuvah, she taught Judaic themes and offered spiritual counseling for women residents.  While in Rabbinical school, she met and married her husband, Tal, who is a franchise lawyer.  Upon ordination, she served as rabbi to Bnai Ami Synagogue in Chatsworth, California and taught Rabbinics at the Milken Community High School in Los Angeles.  Beginning this year, Rabbi Grinblat serves as rabbi to Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, California.  She also teaches a Midrash course for Rabbinical students at the University of Judaism.  Rabbi Grinblat's goal is to help people find wholeness by engaging in Jewish text and tradition.

Last year, Temple Beth Shalom celebrated its 50th anniversary in the Long Beach Community.  Beth Shalom is a full-service, Conservative, Egalitarian congregation.  The congregation is small enough to be a warm extended family, yet large enough to offer all activities and resources for a fulfilling Jewish life.

 
Rabbi David Wolpe
Sinai Temple
Los Angeles, CA

Our spiritual life unfolds not only in books, learning and the products of mind, but also powerfully in the majesty of nature.  In a rudimentary form, the spiritual power of nature was felt in pagan societies: In Ovid's metamorphosis, when Daphne holds her hands up to the sky to pray she grows leaves and becomes a tree.  Something deep in our worship life touches not only on nature in general, but on trees.

Judaism sees nature not as divine in itself, but as a product of the Divine.  So while repudiating worship of nature, the Torah sees God manifest in creation.  Trees are a metaphor for the bustling, branching life of the spirit and the mind.  The Torah is an etz chaim, a tree of life.  The Psalmist begins by speaking of himself as a tree planted beside still waters, which yields its fruit in season, and whose foliage never fades (Psalm 1:3).
 
The tree of life stands in the center of the garden, serving as a remarkable evidence of God's world, the tree that almost in a devotional pose raises its branches to the sky.

When we are children, we carve our initials in trees.  For we understand that unlike putting a name in pavement, the initials will grow with the tree.  In later years should we see them again they will be higher, and burnished by time.

The focus on nature in the Bible reminds us of the remarkable paradox of human creation.  We are both in nature and apart from it.  We are the custodians of the garden at the same time as we are a shoot of the original planting.  Human cultivation of the land is not only for sustenance, but an essential expression of the growth of human society.

Tu B’Shevat is a holiday that reminds us of our connection to earth.  Adam, the primal man, takes his name from Adamah, meaning earth, a primal substance.  Out of the Adamah the most striking product is the tree.  It gives shade and bears fruit; in other words, it changes the climate and contributes its distinctive gift.  At our best, we do the same: we change the moral atmosphere of the earth and deliver to it of our gifts.

In this important sense Zionism was a reclamation of the original project of tending the garden.  Jewish National Fund has taken an important piece of the original legacy, to persuade God's world to flourish.

The Midrash calls God a tsayar, an artist.  The natural world is the product of divine artistry.  As the poet David Wagoner writes,

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost.  Stand still.  The forest knows
Where you are.  You must let it find you.

Indifference to beauty is unworthy of us.  Since vision is a product not only of the eye but also of the mind, to be alive to the wondrous is a sacred task.  The world remains a garden crying out for us to cultivate.  The tree still stands at the center, the etz chaim, the tree of life.  That Etz Chaim is both the actual trees with which we enrich the natural world, and the Torah, with which we enrich the world of the spirit.  The two are one in God. 

Rabbi David Wolpe
Sinai Temple
10400 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Phone: (310) 481-3242
Fax: (310) 481-3380

Rabbi David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.  Previously he taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he also served as assistant to the Chancellor.  He has taught at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and at Hunter College in New York.  Rabbi Wolpe lectures widely at universities, synagogues and institutes throughout the country.

His own writings, as well as profiles and reviews of his work, have appeared in such publications as Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The Los Angeles Times, and USA Today.  He has also been a frequent television guest, including appearances on CNN and CBS This Morning as a commentator on spiritual questions.  He has been featured in a series on A&E called "Mysteries of the Bible," and most recently, on PBS in the four part series, "David Citadel, The History of the Jews." 

Rabbi Wolpe is the author of five books: The Healer of Shattered Hearts: A Jewish View of God, In Speech and In Silence: The Jewish Quest for God, Teaching Your Children About God, Why Be Jewish?, and Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times.

 
Rabbi David H. Lincoln
Park Avenue Synagogue
New York, NY

It is fitting that we use the occasion of Tu B’Shevat to reflect on Judaism's concern for the environment.  The various laws forbidding wanton destruction even when confronted by hostility and war are an important element in our religious lives.

Each year as I celebrate the new year for the trees, I must confess that I have mixed feelings for forests and woods.  Of course, I rejoice in the work of Jewish National Fund with their afforestation undertakings and other vital works.  Some years ago I was part of a rabbinical delegation in Israel that planted trees and visited various projects of JNF.  While praying at the Kotel I met the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Police and told him that I was due to speak the next morning.  He suggested that I use a theme expressed in the Talmud.  It seems that if one was planting a tree in Israel and the news comes of the arrival of the Messiah, one has to continue planting and greet the Messiah later!

This minor festival has become an integral part of my own Hebrew School with a Seder and many activities.

A few years ago my older son and I traveled to Lithuania visiting very many of the famous towns of the heritage from pre-war days.  Sadly, the true horror of the Holocaust in that area was brought back to us in the forests.  Traveling with a Jewish guide we began to dread coming to the next forest.  Everywhere we went there was a sight of another massacre of our people.  Memorials had been recently added (they had not been allowed in Soviet times) proclaiming in Yiddish, Hebrew or Lithuanian how many were slaughtered at these various places.  Trees were not created in order to cover up appalling crimes we thought, but to bring joy to the universe.

This is our Jewish approach to nature.  We are commanded to respect and love our world.  If others choose to use things of beauty in order to hide their criminal deeds that is very tragic. 

Rabbi David H. Lincoln
Park Avenue Synagogue
50 East 87th Street
New York, NY 10128
Phone: (212) 369-2600
Fax:  (212) 410-7879

Rabbi David H. Lincoln was born in London, England and he studied law at London University and the Law Society School in London.  He attended Gateshead Talmudical College in England and spent two years in rabbinical study in the Yeshivat Kol Torah in Jerusalem.  He received the certificate of practice as Rabbi from the Office of Chief Rabbi in England, and was ordained at the Etz Chaim Yeshiva and by the Ab Beth Din of London.  He was appointed Rabbi of Portsmouth Hebrew Congregation, England in 1965.

Rabbi Lincoln came to the United States in 1968.  He was Assistant Rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City, Missouri.  He was Chaplain to the State Senate in Springfield, Illinois, while Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Zion in Chicago for four years.  He was the spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Congregation in Wilmette, Illinois for fourteen years.  He now serves as a Senior Rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City.

Rabbi Lincoln and his wife, Susan, have three children: Sara, Simon and Jonathan and three grandchildren.

 
Tu B’Shevat
Rabbi Jonathan A. Schnitzer
B’nai Israel Congregation
Rockville, Maryland

Tu B’Shevat is a distinctive moment of the Jewish year. In the Talmud, the school of Beit Hillel suggests that Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the month of Shevat, is the new year’s day for trees. Rabbi Elazar explains that Shevat was chosen, because, in Israel, most of the annual winter rain falls by that date and the sap has begun to rise in the trees. The word “Tu” is the numerical Hebrew equivalent of 15.

We need to remember that our ancestors were deeply immersed in the world of nature. The rhythms of the year were significant to them. Tu B’Shevat marked a time, therefore, when they were especially aware of the miracles that are part of life: winter passes, spring emerges, the seasons alternate in a regular pattern and trees are a highly visible aspect of that process.

Even when most Jews no longer lived in the land of Israel, Tu B’Shevat was still observed. For Jews, throughout the world, it became an expression of attachment to Eretz Yisrael. In some Ashkenazic communities, a custom arose to eat 15 types of fruit on this day. Considerable efforts were often made to obtain various fruits, which are grown in Israel.

The Kabbalists who settled in the city of Sefed in the 16th century developed a new practice: a Seder for Tu B’Shevat. Modeled on the Passover Seder, this Tu B’Shevat ritual followed a prescribed order of eating and the drinking of four cups of wine. How delightful it is that the celebration of the Tu B’Shevat Seder has experienced a revival in our era.

In the 20th century, with the return of large numbers of Jews to Eretz Yisrael, Tu B’Shevat assumed a new dimension. Jewish National Fund, responsible for changing the barren hillsides into forests, arranged for massive tree plantings on Tu B’Shevat. Jews in the Diaspora- outside of Israel- were urged to provide for the purchase of such trees. Through these efforts, more than 250 million trees have been planted in giant reforestation projects. Much of the land of Israel is now green and lush- although recent arson fires have had a devastating impact. Our support of Jewish National
Fund remains a very tangible and pragmatic way in which to communicate our love for the land of Israel and our concern for its well being.

But there are also other contemporary implications, which deserve our consideration on Tu B’Shevat. In this era of global environmental threats such as the “greenhouse effect,” the solid-waste crisis, oil slicks and the pollution of our water and foods by pesticides, Tu B’Shevat reminds us how fragile and complex our ecosystem really is.

The Torah teaches us that, in the midst of besieging a city during war, an army is forbidden to destroy its trees. The rabbis took this idea and expanded it formulating a concept called “Bal Tashheet.” Protecting the natural world becomes both a legal and ethical imperative. If an enemy’s trees were to be preserved in time of war, how much more so the earth, the water and the air in time of peace!

Our tradition has a message to give us about the environment. On Tu B’Shevat we need to focus on those teachings and the way in which they can sustain and enhance our world.

As daylight hours now perceptibly lengthen, as the earth slowly re-awakens, as we project ahead towards spring and summer, Tu B’Shevat challenges us to turn our attention to the Mitzvah of preserving the divine gift of nature.

There is a poignant Midrash, which captures that theme:

“When God created the first human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to inspect the trees, God admonished him in the following way:

‘‘Look how lovely and extraordinary my work has turned out to be! Please note that everything I’ve created is for you. Therefore, consider this responsibility carefully- and do not damage or destroy my world for if you do, there is no way to repair it after you!” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:13)

Joyce Kilmer put it slightly differently, but equally effectively:
“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me.
But only God can make a tree.”

As we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, may we feel joy in the beauty of nature all around us and responsibility for ensuring that future generations will also experience that same privilege! 

Rabbi Jonathan A. Schnitzer
B’nai Israel Congregation
6301 Montrose Road
Rockville, MD 20852-4120
Phone: (301) 881-6550

Rabbi Jonathan A. Schnitzer is Senior Rabbi of B’nai Israel Congregation, in Rockville Maryland. Associate Chair of the Rabbinic Cabinet of United Jewish Communities and active in many endeavors in the Washington Jewish community and beyond.
 
Rabbi Shawn Zell
Temple Beth O'r / Beth Torah
Clark, NJ

Quite frankly, I’m surprised.  Given Judaism’s track record of being able to borrow from the outside world, add a Yiddish Ta’am (a Jewish flavor) and claim it for its own, I’m surprised that such a tradition, for whatever reason, didn’t take root as far as Tu B’Shevat.  If a braided Polish loaf of bread can take shape and become Challah (all that’s needed is for a Bracha LehaFrish Challah to be made over some separated kneaded dough), if a procrustean bed can serve as a symbol of Sodomic hospitality or lack thereof, if the Moldau can inspire enough hope so that it becomes the basis for Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, then it’s beyond me, why Judaism thought it would be going out on a limb come Tu B’Shevat if it “borrowed” stories from the outside world.

Can you imagine the wealth of literature that would be ours for the recounting, if our tradition approached Tu B’Shevat the same way it did cooking (stuffed cabbage taken from the Ukraine) or dress (shtreimel fur lined hat from Poland)?

Thank to the complete Hans C. Andersen what follows is just one Tu B’Shevat story that could have been….

The Nafuach Tapuach The apple swollen with Pride (based on the story The Conceited Apple Branch).

One upon a time, a great Rabbi was walking past a most beautiful apple tree.  After reciting the Bracha Baruch…Ha’Olam Sheh Kacha Lo Ba’olamo, the Rabbi noticed an apple tree branch covered with delicate pink blossoms laying on the ground.  Overcome by its beauty, the Rabbi picked up the branch, brought it home, and gave it to his rebbetzin, who promptly placed it in a vase.  Realizing that this was the home of a great Rabbi and very much aware of its own natural beauty, the apple branch couldn’t help but think a great deal of itself.  What’s more, the apple branch began to look down on other plants and flowers, especially the dandelion.  “Nebech,” said the apple branch.  “It’s not the dandelion’s fault that it has such an ugly name (dandelion, like its Hebrew equivalent means lion’s tooth).  But its taste?  Gevalt!  So bitter!  Not sweet like mine.  No wonder it’s a mere weed!”  And just as it was feeling so smug and self-righteous, a poor Jew entered the home of the esteemed Rabbi:  He had with him his three year old son, who was quite ill.  Since the Rabbi was well versed in a variety of fields including medicine, the poor Jew turned to the Rabbi for help.  “Esteemed Rabbi,” said the poor Jew.  “Please help my son!  A neighbor said that if we fed him applesauce he’d get better.  But look at the poor boy!”  After examining the child, the Rabbi exclaimed:  “Applesauce!  Applesauce is of no avail!  All the apples in the world won’t help him. But I’ll tell you what will.  Juice from a dandelion!”  And with that, the Rabbi left the room only to return a moment later carrying a bunch of dandelions.  Squeezing the dandelions gently, the Rabbi collected the juice in a glass, which he then gave to the child to drink.  Almost immediately, the child’s health returned to him.  And the apple branch?  The apple branch realized that Ha Shem had blessed this lowly, ugly named, bitter tasting flower in His own way.

The pre-existing Tu B’Shevat stories are wonderful.  But perhaps it’s time to cultivate a broader base, so that not only the trees themselves blossom on Tu B’Shevat, but the literature surrounding Tu B’Shevat as well, thereby creating a wonderful surprise. 

Rabbi Shawn B. Zell
Temple Beth O'r/Beth Torah
111 Valley Road
Clark, NJ 07066
Phone: (732) 381-8403

Rabbi Shawn B. Zell is a 1981 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the training ground for conservative rabbis. He has attended the Herzliah-Jewish Teachers Seminary in New York and the University of Manitoba in Canada. He is a recipient of the Dr. Benjamin E. Sheitlis award in Medieval Hebrew Literature and has published in both Hebrew and Yiddish. Rabbi Zell taught in various Hebrew Schools for 11 years and was an intern rabbi in Riverdale, New York. Prior to assuming the pulpit at Beth O'r in Clark, New Jersey, he was rabbi of Congregation Shaare Zion in Sioux City, Iowa for three years and served as secretary and treasurer of the Central States Regional Rabbinical Assembly. In addition to his rabbinic duties at the temple, Rabbi Zell serves as chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. Having taught rabbinics to tenth and eleventh graders for ten years at Solomon Schechter Day School, Rabbi Zell is past president of the Union County Board of Rabbis and has served on the Executive Board of the Northern New Jersey Region of the Rabbinical Assembly. Currently Rabbi Zell is actively involved in a Jewish Family Service Task Force on Jews and addictions as well as a United Synagogue Commission on Alcoholism within the Jewish Community.
 
Rabbi Lester Polonsky
Temple Avodah 
Oceanside, NY

We all receive junk mail.  We know what it looks like, even before we open the envelope.  And in most cases, we toss it away.  If we have computers and email, we still receive junk mail, usually more than we like to admit.  When we receive junk mail via the email, we say we have been spamed.  To be spamed means to be blanketed with junk mail via the Internet.

Rabbis get spamed.  I know it sounds strange, since Spam was the sandwich meat made of pork, but today it has a new meaning.  Rabbis get spamed with email from various Jewish organizations, promoting their wonderful programs and worthy causes.  It is the hope of these Jewish organizations that as the Rabbis begin to prepare for their High Holiday sermons, they will consider the worthiness of their organization and include it in their sermons.

Beginning in the early spring Jewish organizations will mail out elaborate brochures with pictures highlighting the success of their programs.  These promoters believe that the earlier the Rabbis receive this material, the more time they have to reflect on the important work of their organization.

Among the many pieces of mail I have received, it is the information from Jewish National Fund that I have held on to.

Why?

Certainly their beautiful color brochure with pictures of the land, fill me with memories of years spent in Israel as a student.  I clearly recall those days being inspired with the richness of the land of Israel, that at one time was a desert, which now blossomed with the color of life and the agricultural and technological potential.  Jewish National Fund was established some 100 years ago to bring life to an ancient land, so that its people could live and prosper.

As I held this brochure in my hand, I recall my days in Hebrew school, collecting and licking stamps to purchase a tree in Israel, or the time when my fellow students collected enough Tzadakah money to purchase a forest in memory of a beloved teacher.

During my freshman year of college, studying in Jerusalem, I visited a JNF forest. I expected to see a grove of trees with my name on each one.  We now joke as we share the birthday or anniversary card that says, "Mazel Tov, a tree has been planted in Israel.  Your day to water it is Tuesday."

But the pictures from JNF brochure have moved me beyond the vague memories of years past to the present.  For some reason, I can't discard this brochure.  Something continues to draw me to the land of Israel.  And I read on.  I am amazed at the programs and accomplishments this organization has undertaken.  The hope conveyed in this brochure echoes my own hope for peace.  And I understand why I can't ignore this brochure, for pictures in this brochure of Jewish National Fund, blasts forth like a shining light.  In a land of war and bloodshed, there is hope, Tikvah.  And Jewish National Fund provides us with an opportunity to help Israel at a time, when we feel helpless.

At a time when it seems that the mention of Israel becomes synonymous with terrorism, bloodshed and suicide bombings, what can we do?  What can we do to help our people, our land?

One thing we can do is:

We can continue to support Jewish National Fund.  Jewish National Fund was created over 100 years ago, in 1901, as the collection agency on behalf of world Jewry to purchase the land of Israel.  Since 1948, the JNF has responded to the needs of the land and people, it has drained swamps, built roads, dug reservoirs, restored riverbeds, and fought pollution.

It is now confronted by the major problem of water.  The shortage of water is a growing problem globally.  However, the scarcity of water is most severe in Israel. Water resources throughout the region are declining; Jordan must double it sources of water over the next two decades.  Israel must now decide not only how to cut its consumption further despite an increase in population but also how to share these precious waters with her neighbors.

JNF has become the coordinating body with the Ministry of the Environment, in the restoration of Israel's rivers and streams in order to purify the water.

Water resources are only one of the challenges that JNF is involved.  Soil conservation is another.  In Israel, JNF is the sole body responsible for soil conservation striving to maintain the quality of the land suitable for agriculture.  The goal is to preserve the quality of the soil, preventing deterioration and assuring that the economic basis of agricultural communities is preserved.

Someday, the bloodshed will cease; there will be no mention of suicide bombings, reprisals, and bloodshed. 

Someday, there will be peace, someday.

And when that day occurs, Israel the people will devote their attention to Israel the Land, to the problems of preserving and protecting a peaceful coexistence on one land.  They will continue to face the challenges of an agricultural society on a desert arid land, the challenge of providing an adequate supply of fresh water to an ever-growing population.

When peace finally arrives, Jewish National Fund will be again called upon to provide the environmental expertise as it has done for the past 100 years.  But now the need will be greater.

We can do something today.  The trees we plant in Israel will be part of Jewish National Fund's efforts to preserve the land and all its valuable resources.

Today, there is conflict, but tomorrow, whenever that tomorrow may be, will bring peace. And this peace will bring renewed attention to the land that we hold sacred.  At that time the involvement of Jewish National Fund will be greater but its resources will be limited.  As our symbol of hope and peace, we can plant a tree today.  This symbol will reflect our support for the land, the people and our own hope for peace tomorrow.
 
Rabbi Lester Polonsky
Temple Israel
315 Forest Avenue
Staten Island, NY
Phone: (718) 727-2231


Rabbi Lester Polonsky was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in June of 1978. His first pulpit was Congregation Beth Sholom of Anchorage, Alaska where he served for 5 years. For the following 13 years, Rabbi Polonsky was the spiritual leader of Temple Shalom of Monticello, New York. Returning to New York City, Rabbi Polonsky followed the successful 35 years of Rabbi Ronald Millstein at Temple Israel of Jamaica. He then went on to serve as Educational Director for Temple Avodah in Oceanside, NY. He is currently serving as the Rabbi at Temple Israel in Staten Island. He is married to Helene and they have two grown children, Seth and Rena.
 
Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski
Jewish Community Center of Harrison
Harrison, NY

Tu B’Shevat and JNF share a common destiny.  Tu B’Shevat, the holiday of the trees, has developed into a Jewish celebration of God’s creation and ecological responsibility.  In the same manner, JNF, who was identified with trees, has grown into an organization that cares for Israel’s whole well being.  Jewish National Fund, as the caretaker of the land of Israel, secures the land, forests it, and champions the most vital natural element for the future of Israel: water.  JNF is the embodiment of the values of Tu B’Shevat. 

I am sharing with you a short piece that captures some of the essence of JNF’s work.  These values are strongly connected to Tu B’Shevat, which as the holiday of trees, has come to signify the overall ecological commitment that has been the trademark of JNF for a hundred years.

— Rabbi Alfredo Fabio Borodowski

JNF, The Dwelling Place of Prophets
Since Biblical times prophecy and water have been intertwined. Following the death of Miriam, the Book of Numbers (20:1-2) tells us “there was no water for the congregation.” The Rabbis suspected that Miriam’s death and the mysterious sudden water shortage could not be coincidental.  But what could the connection between Miriam the prophetess and water be? The rabbis infer that for as long as Miriam the prophetess lived, a well that God gave as a gift in honor of Miriam followed the Israelites throughout the desert.  Tragically, when Miriam died and her prophecy ceased, the well dried up.

It is in remembrance of Miriam’s well that today some homes place a cup of water next to Elijah’s Cup at their Passover Seder.  While wine is a symbol of joy, water is a symbol of life.  Miriam is powerfully connected to that symbol of life.  It was she who rescued her baby brother Moses by following the infant to Pharaoh’s daughter after their mother had bravely cast him into the water of the Nile in hopes of saving his life.  It was also she who led the women of Israel singing and playing musical instruments through the parted waters of the Red Sea.  At pivotal historic moments, Miriam showed courage and character as powerful waters offered the potential either for life or for death.  As a reward, God gave a well to follow Miriam through the desert.  Moses, the liberator and lawgiver, and his brother Aaron, the priest, ruled the tabernacle in which worship of God occurred.  Their domain represented the ritual and law necessary for an orderly life.  Alternatively, Miriam presided over the well.  Her domain represented both the nourishment and the fluidity that are essential for growth and creativity.

Today, as during Biblical times, prophecy and waters flow as one. We are faced with the nefarious prospect that Israel will run out of water by the year 2012. Yes, Israel’s political challenges demand that our diplomacy and powerful army stand tall, strong, and impressive as the Tabernacle. However, without the well and its nourishing waters, our efforts will be in vain.  It is at this junction that the spirit of Miriam the prophetess must resonate within us. It is precisely at these times of political turmoil that the clarity of waters and the vision of prophecy must again find each other. Prophecies are a divine warning label in the face of an avoidable calamity. Yes, Miriam’s prophecy lives. With each digging of a reservoir, every yard of water pipe adjoined, and each cleaning of a polluted river, JNF is allowing the people of Israel to continue their journey.  

Rabbi Alfredo F. Borodowski, Ph. D.
American Friends of the Shalom Hartman Institute
One Pennsylvania Plaza, Suite 1606
New York, New York 10119
Phone: (212) 268-0300


Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Alfredo Borodowski received his ordination from the Seminario Rabinico Latino Americano. He served as an Assistant Rabbi of a large congregation in Buenos Aires. Additionally, he received a law degree from the University of Buenos Aries and served as a public defender. He spent two years studying in Israel as a Senior Educator at the Melton Research Center at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He taught in the Philosophy department at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has also taught and spoken extensively at many adult education programs and fund raising events.

Rabbi Borodowski currently serves as the Executive Director of American Friends of Shalom Hartman Institute. Previously, Rabbi Borodowski served as Rabbi of the Jewish Community Center of Harrison. He serves on the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet of the Conservative Movement, has been a member of the Human Subject Review Committee of Columbia University, and is currently a fellow of the Metivta Spirituality Institute. He has written several articles on the topic of Judaism and modern spirituality.

Rabbi Borodowski is married to Rabbi Shira Leibowitz, lower school principal of the Solomon Schechter in White Plains, NY. They are blessed with two children, Talia and Ronen.

Rabbi Michael Cohen
Israel Congregation of Manchester Center
Manchester, VT

Like nature itself Tu B'Shevat has gone through a number of different seasons throughout its existence.  From its Biblical origins as a tax day on fruit trees, to its Kabalistic transformation as a nature-mystical holiday, and more recently as the environmental holiday par excellence of Judaism.  Our tradition is saturated with nature sensitive messages from the charge to "guard" the earth in Genesis (2:15) to the nature-intoxicated words of many of the Psalms, to the sublime message not to disturb the environment on Shabbat.

As the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz taught one way to understand the lesson of the Tower of Babel is not to look at the proliferation of different languages as a punishment, but rather as an aid in making us more human and humane.  The message is clear the greater diversity in the human world, the healthier the world is.  It should not surprise us that we know this is true with the environment.  The more diversity, the healthier it is as well.  This parallel further reminds us that we need to look at ourselves not as separate from the environment, but an integral part of the environment.

It was the Zionist philosopher Ahad Haam who said, "More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews."  One could also say, "More than the Jews have kept the Land of Israel, the Land of Israel has kept the Jews."  It was one of our most important decisions, made at the moment that we were expelled from the Land that we decided to keep that connection to the Land strong.  The Romans knew this when they changed the name of the Land from Israel to Palestine hoping to cut that connection.

We made that connection strong by making it tangible, real, and full of meaning.  It is not surprising that when the Dalai Lama asked to be taught the secret of our maintaining our identity over thousands of years of exile, as he anticipates the exile of the Tibetans will be long as well, he was taught by the rabbis and teachers he met to maintain a real connection with the land.

Tu B'Shevat as stated above is the holiday par excellence which makes that point.  It makes no sense to celebrate the planting of trees in the middle of the winter in North America, or Poland, or Moscow, or London for that matter.  It does make sense though if you want to be reminded of the climate, the foliage, and the season, of the homeland of the Jewish People.

We know of no other people in the world who were exiled off their land for more than 150 years and maintained their identity except for the Jewish People.  One of the key factors to maintaining our identity all these years was maintaining our connection to the Land.

Now that we have returned to the Land what do we have to say for ourselves?  Yes we have succeeded in so many ways beyond our wildest imagination.  But there has also been a price to pay.  Martin Buber said in reference to the early Zionist's reverence for the land, "But what a great many overlook is that the powers released by this renewed bond to the soil do not suffice to accomplish a true and complete transformation."  Our connection to that soil, one of the key elements to Jewish survival for almost 2,000 years of exile, is about a reciprocal relationship.

We have not always understood and lived by that reciprocity when it has come to the Land.  Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of ignorance, and sometimes even out of arrogance we have mistreated the Land of Israel in the name of Zionism.  Yes we have also been innovative and nurturing in amazing ways as well when it comes to the Land of Israel.  But we must not let our accomplishments blind us to what else we have done.

We are told that the Land of Israel was assigned to us as a sacred trust.  That trust, if we are to take it seriously, includes the care of its holy soil, water, air, and animal life.  The health of the land is also a good barometer of the health of the Zionist movement.  Zionism stands not just for returning the People to the Land, but also the care of that very Land so that the Jewish People may thrive on it.  We prayed almost 2,000 years for the ability to return to her soil.  Now, a hundred years after we have returned, a century marked by successes beyond our wildest expectations, we can no longer wait for tomorrow.  The time to answer is now.  The Land, this Tu B'Shevat, is once again calling out to us. 

Rabbi Michael Cohen
Israel Congregation of Manchester Center
293 Barnumville Road
Manchester, VT 05255
Phone/Fax: (802) 362-5546
www.arava.org

Rabbi Michael M. Cohen was born in Indiana and raised in New Jersey and is a graduate of the University of Vermont (B.A. History-Honors) and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.  He served for 10 years as the Rabbi of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont where presently he is the Rabbi Emeritus.  He is a past-President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

A member of the founding faculty of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura in 1996, he is now the Executive Director of their North American office.  Rabbi Cohen has had a long interest in the environment and is also interested in the intersection of Judaism with popular culture.  He is also the co-founder of the Green Zionists Alliance, the first environmental slate to run a list of delegates in a Zionist Congress Election.

He has had articles published in The Jerusalem Post, Ha'aretz, Al-Quds, Bible Review, The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Kerem, Living Text, and a number of Jewish American newspapers.  He also contributed to Siddur Kol HaNeshamah, A Night of Questions Haggadah, and Sacred Intentions.

 
Rabbi Steven Fink
Temple Oheb Shalom
Baltimore, MD

A grandmother was observing her granddaughter drawing a picture.  She said, "Honey, what are you drawing?"  Her granddaughter said, "I'm drawing a picture of God."  The grandmother said, "But, honey, nobody knows what God looks like."  The little girl then said, "They will now!"

One of the names for God is Mekor Hachayim, the Source of life.  This sermon is about one of the crucial ingredients of human life— water.  I will get to that subject soon, please bear with me.

We will soon observe Tu B'Shevat, which is a highlight of the early spring in Israel and the most important day of the year for Jewish National Fund.  Israel, as we know it would not exist without the trees planted by JNF.  I also claim that Israel would not exist without Jewish National Fund.  I am now going to make a statement that I would like you to think about, if not now, then certainly throughout the week.

Israel would not exist without Jewish National Fund.  I don’t mean that Israel would be weakened or its survival threatened.  The very State of Israel could not have come into being without Jewish National Fund.  The pushke, or Blue Box, literally paid for the Land of Israel.  How many homes possessed Jewish National Fund's Blue Box?  How many children would place nickels and dimes in the pushke or buy stamps so that we could purchase trees in Israel?  I dare say that most of our homes had one and that most of us put our coins in the box or bought ten stamps for 25 cents each so that we could buy our own trees. The Blue Box became a symbol of the partnership between the Jewish people and Jewish National Fund in the redemption of the Land of Israel.

Jewish National Fund or, as it is known in Hebrew, Keren Kayemeth I'Yisrael, was founded as the land-purchasing arm of the Jewish people.  The Hebrew name comes from the Talmudic dictum about good deeds, "The fruit of which a man enjoys in this world, while the capital (Keren Kayemeth) abides for him in the next world (Peah 1:1)."  It was agreed from its inception that the Jewish people would own all the land purchases in perpetuity.  This land fund was based on the injunction from the Book of Leviticus (25:10), "The land shall not be sold forever, for the land is Mine, " referring, of course, to God.  JNF does not sell land.  It contracts forty nine-year leases as long as the land serves its intended use.  Prior to the founding of the State, JNF, through the donations of the Blue Box, purchased 375,000 acres in Israel.  The little tin collection box literally helped create the Jewish State.

Since 1948, Jewish National Fund has engaged in a host of projects.  It has drained swamps, built roads, dug reservoirs, established border settlements, pioneered the recycling of water, restored riverbeds, fought pollution, and developed Israel's extensive water carrier network.  The best known of its activities is the planting of trees.  JNF has planted more than 210,000,000 trees in Israel.  In fact, Israel has more trees now then it did in Biblical times and is one of the few countries in the world that has more trees now than it did one hundred years ago.  Given this envious situation, more trees are needed.  Since last September, arsonists have destroyed more than 5,000 acres of mature forest.  While there last October, I visited a torched forest.  It was a sad and depressing sight. Reforestation, however, is not the greatest challenge needing JNF's attention.

The fact cannot be denied- Israel is running out of water.  Experts estimate that Israel will literally run dry within ten years, less if the present drought continues.  Israel needs 528 billion gallons of water annually for domestic, industrial, and agricultural use.  Yet Israel's fresh water supply is only 475 billion gallons, yielding a 53 billion-gallon annual deficit.  Its largest water source, the Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee, which yields 35% of Israel's water, has shrunk considerably over the last decade.  The lake has receded from its shoreline by more than 1,000 feet!  The JNF has pledged to attack this problem with a five pronged approach: Build one hundred new reservoirs to collect runoff rain or store treated sewage water; recycling water; drawing from brackish underground water reserves; desalinization; and conservation.  Engineers say that by 'harvesting' floodwater in reservoirs, treating and recycling wastewater, extracting the mildly salty underground water reserves, and an aggressive urban conservation policy could save 20-25% of the water Israel currently consumes.  Israel has gone so far as to have discussions with Turkey over the importation of Turkish water in huge tankers.  The prohibitive cost has discouraged putting it into practice. 

JNF has already created 120 reservoirs. It is currently building an additional ten and plans on digging ninety beyond that.  Reservoirs serve several functions: they store water that would otherwise cause destructive winter floods, serve as fish ponds and homes for waterfowl, are used for recreational purposes, and function as holding tanks for treated sewage water.  This is just one strategy in this five-pronged attack on the water shortage. The price tag for all this work is $250 million.

Water is especially crucial to peace.  Israel is already committed to supplying fifty-five million cubic gallons of water a year to Jordan.  Peace treaties will never be concluded with Syria or the Palestinians unless they believe their water needs are addressed.  Given the large expected rise in Israel's population over the next ten years, securing adequate water resources is crucial to Israel's security.

So what does this have to do with us?  Israel is crucial as a center of Jewish life and as the homeland of the Jewish people.  Without sufficient water supplies, Israel cannot exist.  JNF has started a campaign to raise money for water.  We can plant trees and now we will also provide water for Israel. Along with the famous Blue Box, we'll see Blue Bottles.  It will be up to us to provide water for a thirsty land.  May we help provide Israel with it Mekor Hachayim, the source of its life.  May we not be found lacking.

Amen
 
Rabbi Steve M. Fink, D.Min.
Temple Oheb Shalom
7310 Park Heights Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21208
Phone: (410) 358-0105
Fax: (410) 358-3313

Steven Fink was born and raised in West Caldwell, New Jersey.  A 1973 graduate of Franklin and Marshall College, he also studied at the University of Lancaster in England.  Rabbi Fink entered the rabbinical school of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  Ordained in 1979, Rabbi Fink served as assistant and associate rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.  He became rabbi of Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, Iowa in 1983.  Rabbi Fink served as a Des Moines Police chaplain, a lecturer at Drake University and as chairman of the Iowa Coalition for Reproductive Choice.  He received his doctorate from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago in June 1999 in 'congregational revitalization.'  Rabbi Fink has been married to Sally, a Jewish educator, for twenty-five years.  They are parents of Nathaniel, Miriam, and Benjamin.

Rabbi Fink is currently on the Baltimore Jewish Council.  He is Chairman of the Rabbinic Advisory Council of the Shoshana S. Cardin Jewish Community High School and the Central Conference of American Rabbis Argentinean Task Force.  He was elected senior rabbi of Temple Oheb Shalom in 1999.

 
Rabbi Avraham M. I. Avnit
Cincinnati, OH

The Bone and the Tree
Tu B'Shevat- The New Year for Trees

What is the connection between a bone and a tree?  Tu B’Shevat 5764/2004, the New Year for Trees, falls on the Sabbath Parashat Beshalach that starts with the following words:  "And it was when Pharaoh had let the people [Israelites] go."  (Exodus 13:17) On their way out it is written that Moses "…took the bones of Joseph with him, for he [Joseph] had straightly sworn to the children of Israel, saying, 'G-d will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones hence with you.'" (Exodus 12:19)  The Talmud (Sotah 13a) notes that only Moses took Joseph's remains while the rest of the people were occupied with "collecting" the treasure and the valuables of Egypt, a temptation that Moses ignored.  According to Rashi, (in the name of the Midrash Mechilta), Moses also took along the bones of all the brothers of Joseph.  Moses had a profound motive for this.  When a nation, a people, is going back to its land, namely the "Promised Land," and begins to build it, it has to base itself on its past.  Moses, therefore, took the bones of all the brothers to remind them that they had not been born slaves; they were a people with an important ancestry.

In Hebrew, we find that the word for bone is "ehtzem."  Within ehtzem, we can find "meh'ehtz," which means "from the tree."  Indeed, our Torah says,  "The tree of the field is a man."  (Deuteronomy 20:19)  We also see Almighty G-d created Eve from the bones of Adam, who said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman' because she was taken out of man."  (Genesis 2:23).  The Midrash Yalkut-Shimoni (230) says, "Because of the Jews, their land is prosperous."  However, in order to beautify the land, it has to be cultivated. Trees and greeneries must be planted, like the bones that originated from righteous and holy people deeply connected to the Holy Land.  By the presence of the Jews, the land is blessed.  Thus, Moses, by taking the bones of the ancestors out of Egypt, exemplified the dictum that "The wise in heart will receive [the performance of] commandments."  (Proverbs 10:8)The connection between the bones, the tree, and the land is reinforced again from Parashat Beshalach when we read that the Israelites did not have drinking water.  They murmured against Moses about the bitter water saying,  "What shall we drink?"  G-d showed Moses a tree and he cast it into the water and the water turned sweet.  According to the Midrash Mechilta, "It was a miracle within a miracle.  The tree was bitter like the water, yet it made the water sweet."  (Rabbi Eliezer Hamodai says that it was an olive tree, which has a bitter taste.)  From this we can see that from our lives, that are presumably filled with bitterness and poverty, only G-d can bring forth sweetness.

The bone and the tree are inseparable.  Like them, we and the living books of the Laws, the Torah, are very much inseparable.  Truly, "It is the Tree of Life for those who grasp it; and it supporters are praiseworthy.  Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.  Lengthy days are at its right; at its left are wealth and honor."  (Proverbs 3:16-18)

Rabbi Avraham Menachem Israel Avnit
P.O. Box 37189
Cincinnati, OH 45222
Phone: (513) 396-7757

Rabbi Avnit was born in Israel to Jewish and Polish parents who were survivors of the Holocaust.  (Father was born in Pultusk, Poland and Mother was born in Lukow, Poland.)  Rabbi Avnit's father, a direct descendent of MaHaram of Paduwa, MaHari Mintz of Paduwa, Rashi, etc., was a Rabbi and Chossid.

Rabbi Avnit's education took place in Israel where he was ordained and received Smicha from the Chief Rabbi of Givatayim and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.  Besides religious studies he took various secular courses and programs in education, medicine, and engineering and design drafting. He is married with grown children.

In addition to his former role as Chief Rabbi of Zimbabwe, Rabbi Avnit has served communities in South Africa, Australia, Canada and the United States. He has also served as a Cantor, a Reader, Shochet, Mohel, Principal, and Teacher at all levels- Talmud Torah, Elementary School, High School, Colleges and University.

Furthermore, Rabbi Avnit was involved with various Rabbis' Boards and committees and interfaith groups.  He acted as a Chaplain in Army bases, hospitals and nursing homes.  Also, he gave a talk on the portion of the week on the ethnic radio, the Internet, and in Young Israel Synagogues.

 
Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff
Temple B’nai Or
Morristown, NJ

Give a Bar/Bat Mitzvah a tree and you give them everything!

Just about every weekend I officiated at the services in which boys and girls are initiated into Jewish adulthood (well, almost, give or take around ten years or so) by becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah. I wanted to be able to give each youngster something a bit personal, a lot meaningful, and not too costly.

My brilliant solution: plant a tree in honor of each child and present the certificate as part of the service.

At the time, I did not know how very meaningful that would become. The trees really grew on me. For as time went on, I found more and more ways to connect the idea of planting a tree in the Land of Israel with the young person standing before me. The tree and the child had much in common, and there was so much confluence between the symbolism and inherent hopes of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah and that of planting the tree. And if the connections did not speak to a particular child, I had a fair chance of something resonating with the parents, for whom this is usually more of a life cycle event than for their child anyway.

Roots grow deep

Like the tree, this youngster has roots in Jewish soil. Roots speak of family and tradition, of individuals who sacrificed, who inspired, who loved and who hoped and whose hopes are in many ways realized in the young person affirming an allegiance, if not love, of Torah, of Judaism and the Jewish people. Even those who are products of mixed marriages can often be brought to appreciate that their roots from the non-Jewish family bequeath to them: perhaps a heritage of religious commitment and/or the value of living life with spiritual and ethical faithfulness.

But we grow our own roots as well. Having one’s roots continue to grow in Jewish soil speaks of the need to continue to develop and grow as a Jew by furthering one’s Jewish education. The child has presumably mastered the skills necessary to stand before the congregation and lead them in prayer and enough familiarity with at least their own Torah/haphtarah portions so as to speak intelligently about its meaning for him/herself and for the rest of us. But what one understands and can understand at age 13 does not adequately prepare an individual for the opportunities and difficulties which life will present as a teen, young adult or adult. When the storms of life would threaten to overpower, it is only that tree, and that individual, which has deepened its roots will be able to stand erect through the difficult times. Thirteen year olds who stop learning and growing as Jews often remain immature Jews their entire lives, and have little to draw on when the difficult questions arise. The tree that stops growing dies. The Torah IS our Tree of Life!

Branches reach out

As the tree grows, it’s branches stretch out towards the sun, reaching out for the highest. For the tree, the sun is the source of warmth, light, and the energy of life. We, too, reach out for the Highest our own Source of warmth, spiritual light and the energy of life. We call that Source by many names, Adonai, God, the Most High, and sometimes we don’t even give it a name. Like the tree, which has no language, no word for “sun,” but is drawn to it nevertheless, we just sense that It is there. Some of us find our connection with that Source by looking into ourselves. Some of us find It by looking beyond ourselves. Some of us connect best in the sanctuary, some in the forest. Some of do all of the latter, finding that energy above, around and within which connects us to each other and to all that is.

It is the flow between the roots and branches, which gives the tree life. It is the ever-changing flow between our roots what we received from those before us and what we have learned for ourselves and our branches our aspirations and personal connections with God which feeds our lives as Jews.

Spreading Fruit

Trees grow fruit. Through its fruit, the tree gives nourishment to other living things and spreads its influence beyond itself. The deeds of our lives, especially the mitzvot bein adam l’chavero (Jewish deeds of goodness towards others and God’s creation) which we perform are the fruits of our lives. We hope that the fruits of our hands, like the fruits of the tree, are sweet and beautiful, bringing joy and comfort, perhaps even justice and peace. By what we say and how we say it, by what we do and the way we do it, we make a difference to other people and to the world.

A tree, which by chance bares no fruit, will live its life, however long, but will have little influence on the future. A tree with many fruits can influence the future for more generations than we can imagine. And so it is with us.

Jewish Family Connection

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah day of our students is important to them, their families, friends and congregations. But it is also an important day in the life of the Jewish People. To me, giving a tree is like giving a gift on behalf of Am Yisrael, our extended Jewish family, which rejoices in the student’s accomplishments. No matter where they go or what they do, they will, if they choose, always have a connection with the Jewish people and with Jewish people wherever they live, here, in Israel, and throughout the world.

It is true that thirteen year olds generally do not have the abstract thinking ability to understand the concept of “the Jewish people,” at least not as we adults do. “Jewish people” they know. But the idea of “the Jewish people,” that corporate meta-mishpacha which includes all Jews who were, are, and will ever be, here, there and everywhere ("You are standing here this day, all of you…”), that is a bit beyond them. Still, the tree, or at least the certificate, is something concrete which one, if one tries, can visualize and think of as real. It is a physical connection to an abstract ideal.

Along with tree, we give certificates from NFTY and our local Jewish Federation for teen trips to Israel. We express our hope that in a few short years, they will be able to go to Israel themselves, feel a part of the Jewish people alive in its own land, and plant a tree with their very own hands.

Planting for the future

Planting a tree is an act of faith and hope for the future. We plant today to build for tomorrow. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah tree is given not only in a deep sense of pride and joy felt in the moment, but with the highest expectations for the future as well. The Jewish People have a stake in this young person and his/her continued Jewish connection and commitment. That day, they link themselves in faith and in fate to Judaism and our People.

Do they understand? Do they get it? Some do, some don’t, and some only do later. For me, it is my way of planting seeds, seeds, which I hope to nourish and nurture as time goes on. It is my hope to see each of these young people grow into Jewish adults, people whose Jewish lives will truly be a blessing.

So give a kid a tree, for when you do, you are giving him or her a symbol of what it means to live the life of a spiritually awake, morally involved and joyously serious Jew. 

Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff, RJE
Temple B'nai Or
60 Overlook Road
Morristown, NJ 07960
Phone: (973) 539-4539

Rabbi Donald Rossoff is Rabbi of Temple B'nai Or in Morristown, New Jersey. He currently serves as chair of the Israel Committee for the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and is on the national board of the Association of Reform Zionists of America / World Union for Progressive Judaism, North America (ARZA/WUNA). He is also a member of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the UJC.

Rabbi Rossoff has contributed chapters to The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz and Chosen Tales: Stories Told by Jewish Storytellers, edited by Peninnah Schram. He has published articles in The Journal of Reform Judaism, Compass Magazine, The American Rabbi, and the Journal of the National Association of Temple Administrators. He is author of the book, The Perfect Prayer, to be published by UAHC Press.

 
Rabbi James Gibson
Temple Sinai
Pittsburgh, PA

In a version of the Avot DeRabbi Natan, the rabbinic commentary to the Sayings of the Fathers, we find the following cryptic statement:  “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out to greet the Messiah.”

Well, that’s surprising.  It’s counterintuitive.  We Jews pray everyday for a fulfillment to our long labors in this world.  We Jews labor each day that our prayers will be fulfilled, that there will be no more war, strife, anger or contention. 

Yet the Messianic hope can become an obsession.  We remind ourselves constantly of our prophets’ words and hope they come true:   “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war anymore,” (Isaiah 2.4) or “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together and the lion shall eat straw like the ox…” (Isaiah 65.25)

We read of Chassidic masters in the old country, who as a last act before going to bed, would place their packed suitcases at the front door, to be ready to burst outside should the Messiah appear in the middle of the night.

It is this prophetic, messianic hope that has sustained us in darkest times of persecution and despair.  Yet, here comes this Talmudic teaching to say that if someone proclaims the Messiah’s long-awaited arrival, and we happen to be planting a tree, we should plant first and greet later.

Maybe this statement came out of frustration during the strife of the first and second centuries of the Common Era.  In those days, messianic candidates appeared by the dozen, many compelling, all of them false.

The most famous Jewish Messianic candidate (no, not the one from Nazareth) actually was given his title by Rabbi Akiba, the greatest teacher of his era, one of the most brilliant teachers our people has ever produced.  Shimon Bar Kozibah, a first class warrior, was dubbed by Rabbi Akiba, Bar Kochba, and son of a star in Aramaic.  This title was hoped to give Bar Kochba the stature and standing to defeat the hated Roman army.  Alas, he and his forces were crushed.  Rabbi Akiba was wrong.  His choice for Messiah was not the one to fulfill the promises of our prophets.

So the Tradition teaches: Plant the tree first.  Don’t get caught up in the emotion of the moment.  Don’t be swayed by some leader’s charisma.  We further the goal of redemption by planting trees, not by running out to greet the next messianic candidate.  I believe this with all of my heart.  Mashiachzeit, the time of the Messiah’s coming, is not in our power to know.  Far greater minds and souls than ours have tried to force God’s hand, as it were, and make Messiah appear.  Every contender for the position of messiah over the last 2,000 years has turned out to be a pretender instead.

We are not redeemed yet.  We have not yet achieved peace or justice.  We have not yet built a perfect society to prepare the way.  We have not yet planted enough trees.

Obviously, planting trees is a metaphor for the good work we do in this world.  We plant them, they grow and ultimately they sustain us.  Those who do not know the holiday of Tu B’Shevat or the work of Jewish National Fund have at least read The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.  Trees symbolize our willingness to share, to go beyond the minimum requirement, to see beyond the momentary need and give gifts for a future of decades, centuries or even millennia.

But take a moment now and try to think what act would represent the opposite of preparing for the messianic time.  I think it would be the uprooting of trees, vandalizing them or not tending to them so that they die.

In the ongoing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, it has been terribly sad to witness the cutting down of olive trees or the stealing of olives in disputed areas.   As much as terror and violence in word and deed, the inability to let centuries old olive trees bear their fruit in peace should tells us that we are moving backward, not forward in bringing about a messianic time.

I know all the reasons for cutting down the trees: Palestinian terrorists use them for cover when shooting at Israelis, they obscure needed viewing posts in tense areas that are still in dispute.  But if planting a tree is so important that it supersedes greeting the Messiah, tearing down trees only indicates the depth of our sorrow and despair, the cutting down of hope. 

Yet how can we not be sad about this, not only for the moment, but also for the future?  It is written in Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer:  “When a tree that bears fruit is cut down, its moan goes from one end of the world to the other, yet no sound is heard.” (Chapter 34).

Hundreds of millions of trees have been planted by Jewish National Fund in the last century.  Yet in our day we hear the silent moans of the trees cut down in strife and contention.  These fallen trees speak to us of our all too human failures; they tell us that war and hatred are still triumphant and the Messianic time is receding from us.

Given all this, it would be easy to give in to despair and apathy.  Even as we hearken back to past glory in our Torah portion, our miraculous escape at the Sea of Reeds, we cannot push away the feeling that we ourselves are drowning in the present situation.  Even as we listen to Moses’ glorious song of triumph, this Shabbat we sit bundled in coats against the January cold that symbolizes the coldness we have felt in our hearts as the peace process itself has frozen.  The past glory and triumphs of the Torah do not necessarily point to future hope, at least in our day.

And yet, two expressions in Hebrew guide us past lethargy.  They come from the very faith that tells us to plant trees before greeting the Messiah:  B’chot Zot and Lamrot Ha-Kol.  What do they mean?

B’chol Zot means “Even with all this.”  Lamrot Ha-Kol means, “Despite everything.”  They are staples of Israeli conversation and they underlie the hope that we cannot and must not forsake.  Despite everything, we will continue to plant seeds of hope and peace.  If trees are uprooted in one place, we will plant them someplace else.  If we will not enjoy the fruit in our own day, we must plant and protect the trees so their fruit will sustain our children and grandchildren.

As I said before, planting a tree is a symbolic act.  We are a people and heritage that believe in the power of symbols.   The Blue Box and the Tree Certificate are not hunks of metal and scraps of paper.  They are symbols of hope that a time will come when the trees of the Israel will support the hunger and hopes of all her people as well as her neighbors.

Now is not the time to emotionally remove ourselves from caring about both the land and people of Israel.  Now, in the dead of winter, we plant.  B’chol zot, we believe that trees will take root even now.  Lamrot Ha-Kol, we will plant trees even if some of them have to be cut down.

Plant a tree in Israel this Tu B’Shevat.  It is an act of Messianic hope.  Plant a tree in Israel this winter.  It is an act that declares our belief that in the end, things will work out.  Plant a tree in Israel now.  Waiting to plant may well delay the day of peace for all. 

Plant trees, groves, gardens, and forests.  We believe that life will win in the end.   We believe in Israel will find peace in the end.  And if someone tells you not to bother, that your act does not matter, don’t listen.  If someone tells you that the end is already here, whether it is war or peace, don’t stop what you are doing.  Plant the tree anyway.  Maybe its fruit will be picked in a generation that will not ever suffer hatred or bloodshed again.  May that prayer come true b’karov, b’yameinu, soon, in our day.  But if not, plant the tree anyway.  It will come, a messianic time of peace, of sweetness, like tasting of the fruit of a long planted tree.  V’chen yehi retzono.  May this be God’s will. 

Amen. 

Rabbi James Gibson
Temple Sinai
5505 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15217
Phone: (412) 421-8492
Email:
RabbiGibson@templesinaipgh.org

Rabbi Gibson has served as the Senior Rabbi at Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since 1988.  Ordained in 1983 by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Gibson is involved in a variety of community causes and has a longstanding commitment to Israel.


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