Planting Seeds of Change: Tu Bishvat and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day


Jewish professionals and lay leaders are familiar with the unique gifts and challenges that are presented when a Jewish holiday and a secular holiday coincide. Such calendrical collisions prompt us to search for themes common to the two events and to find Jewish meaning in the secular occasions that occur alongside our Jewish holidays. This month provides us with a rich and fascinating opportunity to delve into the common themes of Tu Bishvat and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which both take place on January 21.

At first blush, these two holidays might seem very different. Tu Bishvat, which marks the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, was designated by the sages of the Mishnah as the New Year of the Trees. Tu Bishvat represents the moment in the yearly agricultural cycle when the planting of trees can begin, and reminds us that the natural world always contains the capacity for renewal. For this reason, Tu Bishvat has become the holiday of Jewish environmentalism, when we recall our mandate to be responsible stewards of the earth that God has given us. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day memorializes a leader of great stature and calls us to heed Dr. King’s teachings about equality and justice.

Each holiday, at its core, focuses on aspects of the Jewish directive to perform tikkun olam, to be God’s partners in perfecting the world. On Tu Bishvat, we are reminded of our ability to care for and renew the physical world that we inhabit, and are called to realize that the steps we take to ensure the sustainability of our natural world are holy actions. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we strive to fix the brokenness in the world of human community, reflecting on the elements of our social, political, and economic systems that need repair. On both holidays, we heed God’s call l’takein et ha-olam – to fix that which is broken, to create a world that is imbued with holiness.

Tu Bishvat and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day also share the common themes of universalism and equality. Tu Bishvat emphasizes the relationship of adam [humankind] to adamah [the earth], reminding us that we are all equally responsible for sustaining the natural world, and we are all equally endangered if the environment is damaged. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day reminds us of the equality of all human beings and the responsibility of a just society to make sure that all people are afforded the same rights and protections.

How can a kehilla create programs that tap into the meaning and purpose of both of these holidays? One possibility is to bring the themes of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day into a congregation’s Tu Bishvat programming. Many congregations and schools hold a Tu Bishvat seder to reflect on the themes of the holiday while partaking of some of the produce that trees provide. Some versions of the Tu Bishvat seder include the consumption of three different kinds of fruits: fruits with a hard, inedible peel and an edible interior (like oranges), fruits with a soft, edible exterior and a hard inner core (like peaches), and fruits that are edible all the way through (like figs). One explanation for including each of these types of fruit is that they each symbolize different kinds of people. For instance, the fruits with hard peels symbolize someone who has a tough exterior but whose temperament is “soft.” Bringing these different kinds of fruit together, and reciting the blessing over all of them, emphasizes that, while people can have different qualities, we are all connected by our shared humanity. This element of the Tu Bishvat seder would be an opportune time to talk about the message and meaning of the civil rights movement, which reminded Americans that although we possess different qualities, we are all a part of the human family. Hazon, the Jewish lab for sustainability, has a wonderful Tu Bishvat Family Seder that can be used or adapted as part of a congregational program.

Another possibility for Tu Bishvat/Martin Luther King, Jr. Day programming is to create an event that focuses on environmental justice and/or food justice, thus tying together the themes of environmentalism and ethics. T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, an organization dedicated to the Jewish imperative for social justice, has enlisted rabbis and other Jewish communal leaders in supporting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker organization in Florida that strives to improve conditions for those who work in Florida’s tomato fields. T’ruah’s online resources include a short video about the work of these clergy members, who call themselves the “Tomato Rabbis.” The video and accompanying resources could be used as the basis for a Tu Bishvat/MLK Day event, which could also include a culinary angle, like preparing and enjoying tomato-based foods such as Israeli salad.

There is much work to be done in our precious, imperfect world. Whatever you choose to focus on in your programming this month, may your efforts help to create a just, sustainable society for all.

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