Thinking Tu B'Shvat: The Tree of Life & the Beloved Community


This year, Tu B'Shvat falls on January 18, 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. That weekend includes the Martin Luther King Birthday holiday, on Monday January 20.

It seems likely that at that time the US will be either in or just on the brink of a major war.

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

There are at least three ways I can see this celebration and observance taking shape:

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 wounded earth — the planet as a whole and Israel in specific.

2. Joining the environmental and MLKing-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 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.

3. Connecting the eco-Jewish aspects of Tu B'Shvat with the peace/ nonviolence values that are at the root of Dr. King's vision (and that some of us believe are 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 on the table in January: the Palestinian-Israeli War, and the US-Iraqi War.

I have my own views on which of these will best nourish the deepest roots of the Tree of Life. But even deeper than my own views is my belief that we should talk out these questions. That we renew Tu B'Shvat, our selves, the Jewish people, and the earth by exploring these questions in all Four Worlds — Doing, Feeling, Knowing, Being.

So I will say my own view in a nutshell and then ask us to discuss these concerns.

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

Opposed to this is the vision that lies at the heart of both Dr. King and Tu B'Shvat — the vision of the Beloved Community, the Tree of Life, that embraces God, the whole web of life, and all human beings of all cultures, religions, and nations.

Among the worst violations of the Beloved Community are —
Modern war, which targets and kills huge numbers of civilians, and even more a violation, 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

Deliberate terrorist attacks.

All three of these are what we face.

So that calls me to suggest that the third approach to Tu B'Shvat be the 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?

We invite your suggestions: — Please especially write Lee Moore, our Program Coordinator, at

I welcome others' thoughts on this analysis. I hope people will express them in direct response to this post and — for those who hold by an active, Jewishly-rooted progressive politics — through the JRJ-Net (Jews Renewing Justice) listserve forum. You can join it by writing and explaining the work you have been doing in advancing Jewishly rooted progressivism.

Shalom, Arthur

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center

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