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Jewish Arbor Day-15th of Shvat
By Micah Halpern

February 8, 2012


Tu b'Shvat is called the Jewish Arbor Day. But the timeline is backwards.

Arbor Day was first celebrated on April 10th in the year 1872, in the state of Nebraska, by J. Sterling Morton. Since then many countries around the world have adopted the idea and created their own Arbor Day. On that first Arbor Day it is estimated that Nebraskans planted one million trees.

There is no doubt that the Hebrew birthday of the trees far preceded the modern celebration.

Modern Zionists, founders of the State of Israel, grabbed on to the date Tu b'Shvat, the 15th day of the month of Shvat, as a way to bridge the past with the present. They wanted to extend Jewish tradition and its connectedness to the land to their modern ideas of cultivation, trees and ownership.

Tu B'Shvat is first mentioned in the Mishna of Rosh Hashannah during an important discussion over distinctions within the Jewish lunar calendar. The discussion centered on the question of what is the start of the year - is it Nissan, the month that houses the Passover holiday and ushers in the spring or is it the month of Tishrei, when Rosh HaShannah, the New Year, is celebrated.

The Mishna rules that there are four New Years. One, Rosh Hashannah or Tishrei, the new year for the world and the time the world was created. Two, Passover or Nissan, the new year for freedom and rebirth. Three, a new year to commemorate the coronation of kings. Four, Tu B'Shvat, the new year for the trees.

During their thousands of years of Jewish life in the Diaspora Jews yearned for many things. The yearning to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple was primary and they often repeated the phrase L' Shana Ha'ba b'Yerushalyim, next year in Jerusalem. And they also yearned to plant trees in the Holy Land and they clung to a tradition that respected, even revered, nature.

The planting of trees was easier to conceptualize. The rebuilding of the Temple was ethereal and difficult to understand.

Eating "bokser" or dried carob and thinking of acacia trees, olive trees and date trees was much more practical. So when Herzl created the modern Zionist movement one of the items that he established was a land bank that bought land and planted trees. This resonated with European Jews. It was, for them, a modernized fruition of Tu B'Shvat.

That was the precursor to JNF, the Jewish National Fund - the official gardeners and foresters of the State of Israel. Every Jewish parent and grandparent had a little blue box in their home.

It was the JNF "pushka", the charity box. And every year those boxes were filled and sent to Israel in order to plant trees and reclaim the land. And school kids received certificates with little stamps to lick and stick on a tree announcing proudly that you had bought a tree to be planted in a forest in Israel. (Hardly a forest the way we imagined in North America.)

Tu b'Shvat enabled Jews to build the land, it transformed the Jewish people from victims to masters of their own destiny. When we put money in the blue pushka it was not only to cultivate the land, it was to cultivate a new generation of Jews proudly called Israelis.

The myth was so deeply in bread that a delinquent Israeli youth might plunder and pillage, but they would never, ever, pick a wild flower.
And there was nothing wrong with that image. But today, that very same image, that very same forest, cultivated with those trees, is seen as a symbol of occupation by the Palestinian.

How could something so good be interpreted as being so oppressive?

The answer is simple. The original idealistic Zionists paid very little attentions to local Arabs. For the founders of Israel settling the land and buying land and cultivating land and planting trees was seen only through their context. And to the Arab residents the Zionists were few in number and seen as weird Europeans who spoke and dressed differently. They even had women working the fields dressed in shorts and shirts.

The clash would only happen when it was too late to create any real rapprochement. When the Arabs realized that the Zionists were in Israel to stay, by the time they figured out that the power had shifted - the locals no longer had any real influence. Today's tensions and what is referred to as the "situation" are an outgrowth of that very realization. The power is now in the hands of those who bought the land and cultivated it, those who expanded the arable land and planted and then planted more and more. Those who built modern cities, not those who once lived on and then sold the land.
This is all an outgrowth of Tu b'Shvat

The victims in the success story called Tu b'Shvat are the Arabs still living in the area. They were, and are still, ill equipped to handle the modern challenges that Israel presents. The best solution would be to co-op the locals and help them engage in the same transformation that morphed the Jews into Israelis.

But I don't see that happening. Their leadership will not let it happen and they are not strong or organized enough to go it alone.

Tu b'Shvat, once a simple act, now a raging symbol.

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4 June 2017 12:13 PM in Columns

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