Given the pace at which so much is happening right now, many of us are finding it increasingly difficult to keep our emotions in check. On the days we celebrate a simcha, we grab onto the positivity with both hands and do our best to never let go. On the days the news reminds us of all that is tragic and worrisome in the world, we sink like a stone into a watery abyss. This emotional roller coaster is both unnerving and unhealthy. Somehow, we need to find a way to bring balance into our lives without isolating or desensitizing ourselves.
Perhaps we can all learn from Tu B’shvat (15th day of Shvat), the holiday Jews around the world observed yesterday. What started as a ceremony at the Temple marking the arrival of spring and birthday of fruit trees in the Holy Land has added several dimensions since its origin in biblical times. Today, Tu B’shvat is observed by many at a Passover-like seder celebrating our connection to each other and to Israel. It is also an annual reminder of the importance of protecting the environment.
The first time we observed Tu B’Shvat in a new way occurred a very long time ago. Rather than wallow in the destruction of the 2nd Temple, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and his contemporaries in the 1st century settled in Yavneh. They started working to reunite the Jewish people by shifting worship away from Temple Judaism towards Rabbinic Judaism, in part by reinterpreting many holidays, including Tu B’shvat.
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples went even further in the 16th century by convening the first Tu B’shvat seder as a replacement for the Bikkurim (First Fruits), the sacrificial offering the ancient Israelites brought to the Temple and laid on the altar. Over time, this communal meal, composed of indigenous food, became an important reminder of all the many different things that connect us.
And, today, with the issue of climate change at the forefront of the global agenda, Tu B’shvat is a holiday on which many Jewish people give thanks for nature, stop to consider what is happening to our environment, and pledge to take action to fulfill our biblical responsibility of “tikkun olam,” repairing the world.
In short, the Jewish people have expanded the observance of Tu B’shvat from a day of thanks to one that now includes celebrating Jewish unity and acknowledging our obligation to take responsibility for the environment.
What lesson can we take away from the evolution of Tu B’shvat over the millennia? Looking back on the history of the holiday, perhaps it is the value of acting in times of distress as opposed to permitting ourselves to become overwhelmed by our circumstances.
The “new and improved” Tu B’shvat is much more than a minor Jewish holiday; it is now a clarion call for all of us to do more than celebrate our unity and blessings. We must also push past any despair we may be feeling and begin working to heal the world.
Tu B’Shvat is an antidote for helplessness and inertia, a reminder of the need to keep pushing forward, find strength in the multitude of ways we are connected, and to embrace our obligations to serve each other and the environment.
And there is no better time to embrace the lesson of Tu B’shvat than right now given that tomorrow is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is the day on which Auschwitz-Birkenau were liberated, and it is a day which the United Nations designated in November of 2005 as an international memorial day. Few moments in life are as challenging for the Jewish people than confronting the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, especially now, when many of us around the world are experiencing instances of the kind of antisemitism that gave rise to the Nazi regime.
Rather than shelter in place, now is the time for our Jewish family to stand tall and strong. We must use this opportunity to once more declare “Never Again” without reservation or hesitation, denounce all forms of hatred, and encourage our allies to join in the fight against evil.
Once again, throughout our long and fascinating history, we must lean on each other to find a way to balance our emotions, choose life, and act.
Cochenu b’achduteynu – our strength is in our unity.