The Tree of Life and the Beloved Community


By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

[Note below: special information on Tu B'Shvat Peace-and-Justice Seder in Washington DC Friday evening, January 17; suggestions for planting a Tree of Life and Peace; other ideas for the Birthday of the Trees this year.]

This year, Tu B'Shvat — the midwinter Jewish festival for the rebirth of trees and of the Divine Tree of Life that has its roots in heaven and its fruits in the world — falls on January 17-18.

That is also the Shabbat on which we read the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, the destruction of Pharaoh's Army, and Miriam's joyful freedom-dance.

And that weekend includes the Martin Luther King Birthday holiday, on Monday January 20.

In Washington DC, four Jewish groups will be co-sponsoring a Tu B'Shvat Seder for Washingtonians and peacemakers from all around the country, pointing toward the celebration of this confluence. (See details on that Seder, below. See also under "Seasons of Our Joy" and then under Tu B'Shvat for many articles on this holy day and its observance.)

It seems likely that at that time the US and Iraq will be either in or just on the brink of war, with its great dangers to human life and children's health, to the possibility of peaceful change in the whole Middle East, and to the earth itself through the possible use of "depleted uranium" bombs, scorched-earth destruction of oil fields, and biological/ chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, Israelis and Palestinians will still be suffering in war that not only shatters human communities but also uproots trees, destroys grasslands and wetlands for the building of "bypass roads" and "security walls," and dries up crucial aquifers.

And because of the threats of war, hundreds of thousands of Americans will be gathering in Dr. King's memory to oppose and resist the march to war, with nonviolent protests.

The confluence of these dates raises some powerful questions for us.

The vision that lies at the heart of Dr. King's work is the Beloved Community that encompasses all human beings of all cultures, religions, and nations, and the planetary web of life.

The vision that lies at the heart of Tu B'Shvat is the Tree of Life, God's Own Self made manifest in the Divine shefa, the flow of abundance, in all the interwoven universe.

Both visions embrace God and wholeness.

There are at least three ways the Tu B'Shvat observance might take shape this year:

1. The kind of eco-Jewish Tu B'Shvat Seder that has gained considerable support in the last decade, joining the Kabbalists' mystical sense of the Divine shefa (abundance) to concerns for the scorched and wounded earth — the planet as a whole and Israel in specific. Our Website will present a Seder text along these lines.

2. Joining the environmental and M. L. King-related justice concerns into a focus on "environmental justice," noting the way in which local communities of color and of poverty are targeted for dumping on (physically & politically).

To make most sense, that would require Jewish groups' working with local African-American (and maybe Hispanic and white-working-class ) groups and neighborhoods that have been targeted as dumps. Such an emphasis might include actually planting trees in such neighborhoods as both symbolic and practical steps, part of a larger campaign for eco-justrice.

3. Connecting the eco-Jewish aspects of Tu B'Shvat with the peace/ nonviolence values and the anti-war action that are at the root of Dr. King's vision and at the root of Torah and of Tu B'Shvat.

Dealing therefore with the present environmental crisis at a planetary level and with either or both of the two wars that may be.

I believe we now face one of the most virulent dangers to the Beloved Community and the Tree of Life that we have ever seen — perhaps most virulent because it is most global.

We face the concentration of enormous power in the hands of a Global Gobble — an amalgam of global corporations and the US government, with Oil as the lubricant, War as the machinery, and the earth and most people as objects/ victims.

The policy of the present US government is to control the sources of oil, put internal domestic US politics under the control of the extremely rich, exploit the earth for corporate profit with few limits, and use war, tax policies that overwhelmingly benefit the ultra-rich, limitations on civil liberties, the weakening of labor unions, privatization of crucial public services, packing the judiciary, and rebuilding high walls of secrecy in government, as ways of controlling political power.

This concentration of top-down, unaccountable power has brought into being a shadow version of itself — the malignity of terrorism. Often it has actually armed and funded these terrorists (when it thought doing so was useful for some short-run gain) and has enabled their later criminal actions.

And the Global Gobble has responded to this terrorism not with the techniques of justice, combined with a massive effort to support democratic energies and improve the lives of the Third World and the Muslim world — but with war that is very likely to shatter those societies still more and multiply the hatred that breeds terrorists.

The terrorist attacks give a spurious legitimacy to the Global Gobble. The Global Gobble gives a spurious legitimacy to the terrorist bands. Between them they create a dance of death.

Among the worst violations of the Beloved Community are —
Modern war, which targets and kills huge numbers of civilians, and a variation even worse, aggressive war — undertaken not in self-defense but as an attack on a possible future threat when there are peaceful alternatives at hand for seeking resolution/ transformation of the conflict;

Rapacious attacks on the earth as a whole, especially the continuation of an Oil-addicted energy policy and politics that makes global scorching worse and war far more likely; and

Deliberate terrorist attacks that murder ordinary people and deeply damage the civilian economic structures that keep a society going.

All three of these are what we face.

So I suggest that the third approach to Tu B'Shvat be one we especially explore this year.

What would this mean in actual practice of Tu B'Shvat and the next day — Sunday — when activism is more possible than on Shabbat? What readings might we insert in the Seder? How might we interpret the Four Worlds/ Four Cups of the Seder? Where might we hold the Seder or other aspects of the day/s?

One of the passages of the Jewish prayerbook celebrates the Torah as a "Tree of Life" for those who hold her close — a Tree of Life devoted to shalom, peace. One way of expressing opposition to a US war against Iraq might be to bring together a multireligious group of Christians, Muslims, and Jews to choose a symbolic public place in which to plant an Eytz Chayyim v'Shalom, a Tree of Life & Peace, and then to plant Friday afternoon before Tu B'Shvat // Shabbat begins, or on Saturday evening as it ends, or on Sunday.

One model for what many local groups might do is being planned in Washington DC. Four organizations — brought together by Rabbi David Shneyer of Am Kolel — are co-sponsoring a Tu B'Shvat Seder on Friday evening, January 17, that will address all these aspects. Each of the four groups will take responsibility for one of the Four Worlds that are celebrated in the mystical Seder.

  1. Asiyah, Actuality: Shomrei Adamah of Washington, healing of the earth.
  2. Yetzirah, Relationship: Jews United for Justice, social justice concerns.
  3. Briyyah, Creativity: Am Kolel, the creation of community.
  4. 4. Atzilut, the Spirit: The Shalom Center, Grief and Joy. Grieving for the trees destroyed by war or corporate greed — Palestinian olives, Israeli pines, Iraqi palms, California redwoods, the Amazon forest. Joy in the rebirth of life-energy and peace-energy in the midst of cold and despair, as trees are reborn in deepest winter.

For more information on the Washington Seder, write,

In regard to peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians, and the special role of trees in their conflict, Rabbis for Human Rights has created a resource of passages from the Bible and Talmud on the protection of trees even in time of war. You can seek this at


1. TREES, EARTH, & TORAH: A TU B'SHVAT ANTHOLOGY (Jewish Publication Society; edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman, & Arthur Waskow) is the fullest collection of the whole range of material that bears on Tu B'Shvat.

It begins with almost all the passages on trees in the Hebrew Bible and then includes —
the Talmud's discussion of tithing on trees,

an extraordinary medieval Amidah for Tu B'Shvat devoted entirely to the life of trees,

the only English translation of P'ri Eytz Hadar (the first Tu B'Shvat Seder, from the Kabbalists of Safed),

the Zionist movement's tree-planting and its political and environmental effects,

and the emergence of eco-Jewish Tu B'Shvat in the past generation.

The volume includes Ellen Bernstein's model Seder, rich material for children, a meditation on "Yah B'Shvat" by Ari Elon, an exploration of the midwinter festivals of other traditions, poetry by Zelda, Marge Piercy, and Marcia Falk, an essay by Arthur Waskow on the history of Tu B'Shvat and how we can draw meaning from its changing form, and much more.

2. A Tu BeShvat Seder: the Feast of Fruits from the Tree of Life — $10.
Booklet, formatted as a seder with recitations and explanations, by Yitzhak Buxbaum.

A Person is Like a Tree: A Sourcebook for Tu BeShvat — $25
Hardcover book.

To order these two, send a check to Yitzhak Buxbaum, 189 Atlantic Ave., #2D, Brooklyn, NY 11201 For a booklet add $2.50 for S & H. For a book or a book and booklet, add $5.

Broader resources on Eco-Judaism:

3. Torah of the Earth (Jewish Lights; 2 vols.; edited by Arthur Waskow) brings together texts, historical essays, and rabbinic, Hassidic, and contemporary commentary from the Bible to the present on Jewish attitudes and actions toward the earth.

4. Arthur Waskow's book Down-to-Earth Judaism (Morrow) addresses issues of food, money, sex, and restfulness from an eco-Jewish perspective.

5. Ellen Bernstein, ed., Ecology and the Jewish Spirit (Jewish Lights) is a valuable collection of contemporary essays on eco-Jewish experience.

6. A new anthology, Judaism and Ecology, has recently been published by Harvard University Press. We have not yet received a review copy, and are unable to report on it.

7. Arthur Waskow's book Seasons of Our Joy (Beacon) treats all the festivals as in part a response to the year of seasonal change in moon, sun, and earth. It includes a pioneering chapter on Tu B'Shvat, and was the first book on the festivals to include Tu B'Shvat as part of the regular cycle. Rabbi Waskow's book with Phyllis Berman, A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven, deals with eco-Jewish concerns as part of the celebration of the moments in a Jewish life-cycle.

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