In the week ahead, many in the Jewish world will celebrate Tu BeShevat. This beautiful holiday, among the newest on the Jewish calendar, has its roots in the Mishna, where the 15th day of the month of Shevat was one of the four days designated as a Jewish New Year. These were:
- The 1st of Nisan, was, among other things, recognized as the New Year for Jewish kings and as the beginning of the religious calendar for festivals.
- The 1st of Elul was determined as the New Year for the tithing of cattle.
- The 1st of Tishrei was set as the beginning of the religious New Year and a day when the world faces judgment.
- The 15th of Shevat was chosen as the New Year for trees. This date was selected because, according to the Talmud, the winter rains in Israel are over and most tree fruit has begun to ripen. Establishing a uniform date for the “birthday” of trees helped to designate fruits as “orlah” (forbidden to eat because they grew during the first three years after a tree’s planting) and for purposes of tithing.
Over the centuries, Jewish communities developed Tu BeShevat into a holiday that celebrates the earth and its bounty. The Kabbalists of Tzefat created a “Tu BeShevat Seder” patterned after the Passover Seder that features drinking four cups of wine, eating different fruits and nuts and reading poetry and hymns. Others have seen Tu BeShevat as a time to emphasize environmentalism and our duty to safeguard the earth entrusted to us by God.
In the past century, Tu BeShevat has taken on new meaning that is linked to the land of Israel and the reestablishment of the State of Israel, no doubt because Tu BeShevat celebrates the land of Israel and its beauty and bounty. The relationship between Judaism and the physical land of Israel, explicit in the Torah and expressed in our people’s yearning to live in the land of Israel, is a key to Zionist identity. Thus, to celebrate Tu BeShevat in our time is to celebrate the land of Israel itself.
How can we best celebrate Israel? There are myriad ways to do so. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has long been devoted to building and sustaining the land of Israel by investment in infrastructure projects. JNF is also there to help organize the worldwide Jewish community to respond to crisis and emergency needs for communities around Israel. Investment in Israel Bonds enables the government of Israel to build up communities and resettle immigrants.
We can also celebrate Israel by helping to shape a strong and vibrant society, even from here in the Diaspora. One of the ways we can do that is to be supportive of MERCAZ, the Zionist organization of Conservative Judaism in Israel. MERCAZ runs and supports many programs throughout the year, such as Israel Advocacy Seminars, Zionist and Hebrew education, short and long term study and volunteer programs. MERCAZ provides financial support for USY Pilgrimage, Ramah Seminar, Nativ, the Conservative Yeshiva, and more. Supporting MERCAZ is one way to advocate for and nurture religious pluralism in Israel, considered by many to be a necessary pillar of a healthy and vibrant Israeli society.
MERCAZ needs your attention and support at this particular time. The 37th World Zionist Congress will convene in October 2015, and delegates to the congress are being elected now. You can register to vote for MERCAZ delegates, who in turn will vote at the WZC to allocate necessary funds to the Conservative Movement in Israel. Registration is open now and will run through the end of April. More MERCAZ delegates at the WZC will ensure that our movement can continue to support Masorti congregations in Israel, TALI (Masorti) public schools, and many other Conservative educational and Zionist programs in Israel. Those 18 years of age or older can register now to vote for MERCAZ delegates.
Tu BeShevat reminds us of our vital link to Eretz Yisrael. We who live in the Diaspora can continue to care for and support Israel, both the physical land and a strong, vibrant society. All it takes is a little initiative and desire.
Click here to register for MERCAZ and vote for delegates to the 37th World Zionist Congress.
Miriam Sisterhood is sponsoring a congregational Tu BeShevat Seder this Tuesday, February 4 at 7:00 PM.