Tu Bishvat: Seeds of Justice

27 January 2021
By: Aaron Leven

There is a story in the Talmud of a man named Honi who encounters a stranger planting carob trees. Honi asks him, “How long will it take for these trees to bear fruit?” The stranger responds, “70 years.” Caught off guard, Honi follows up, “And you think you will still be alive in 70 years?” Resolutely, the stranger replies, “There were carob trees waiting for me when I arrived in the world, just as my ancestors planted for me, so too I will plant for my children.”

There is no day of the year where this story feels more resonant than on Tu Bishvat, the annual birthday celebration of the trees. Originally a functional date set by the Rabbis legislating when and how to benefit from fruit trees in the Land of Israel, Tu Bishvat is a holiday intimately tied to the land. To celebrate, some folks participate in a ritual with Kabbalistic origins known as a Tu Bishvat seder, oriented around honoring and eating fruits, while others focus on the environmental themes of the festival and see the holiday as an opportunity to spend time outside. For many in the diaspora, the holiday is an opportunity to connect to Israel by planting trees, either directly or by donating them.

Of course, as we know, nothing is uncomplicated in Israel, including planting trees. As Tu Bishvat has grown more ubiquitous and widely observed in contemporary Israel, it has also become increasingly politicized. To help understand the complexities of land and policy in Israel, I look to the work of NIF grantee Ir Amim (“City of Nations” in Hebrew). Ir Amim, an organization committed to making Jerusalem a more equitable place for its Jewish and Palestinian residents, has done extensive reporting on the ways in which the Israeli government has created new national parks, gardens, and forests in Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to further settlement expansion and the eventual expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. This Tu Bisvhat, I am called by the work of NIF and Ir Amim to advocate for an Israel whose parks, trees, and new growth are planted in the name of an Israel that I believe in: one rooted in a commitment to human rights where all human beings are understood as reflections of the Divine, b’tzelem Elohim.

I want to note that Honi’s story does not end when he encounters the stranger along the side of the road. If we keep reading, we find that Honi decides to take a rest near where the stranger is planting his carob tree and falls asleep. He dreams for 70 years, only to wake up and find that the stranger’s grandson is there, eating fruit from a beautiful tree. One modern interpretation of this story is perhaps that the stranger Honi encountered intended to plant carob only for his own children to enjoy. This Tu Bishvat, I wish for us to see that while we plant for our own children, we must also plant for anyone who may come across our trees. With this in mind, let us plant differently this year. Instead of planting hostility, bigotry, and discrimination, let us plant justice, inclusion, collective care, and protection for all people. Let us plant trees not as tools of furthering oppression and the occupation, but as tools of ending it.

photo of Aaron Leven

Aaron Leven

Aaron Leven is a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary who has spent most of his life deeply involved in Jewish community and education. He is pursuing the rabbinate in order to dedicate his life to creating dynamic Jewish experiences as rich as those with which he grew up. Aaron has spent 16 summers at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple camps, participated in Avodah, AJWS's volunteer summer in Uganda, Nativ, Yeshivat Hadar's year fellowship, and T'ruah's Israel Fellowship, and worked for OneTable as their New York Hub Manager.