How rare is it that a Jewish holiday that dates back to Mishnaic times and an American holiday first legislated in 1983 (making the third Monday in January a federal holiday) fall out on the same day this year? At first blush they seem to have nothing in common.
The latter marks one of four Jewish New Year’s and its celebration is tied to the agricultural cycle in the land of Israel. The former commemorates the life, legacy and teachings of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, both share the message of great potential — we plant seeds for the future, seeds for positive change, even if we don’t see the full results in the present.
It feels almost ironic and counterintuitive in the U.S. to think about planting during one of the coldest, darkest months of the year. However, Tu B’Shevat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat) has never been solely about the enjoyment of trees. It is about appreciating the past, present, and future of the natural world. This appreciation has taken on new meaning in contemporary times because of our awareness of climate change and the need to nurture nature. We plant now as a gift to future generations, knowing that we likely will not be able to enjoy the fruits ourselves.
Recall the great Talmudic story of the 1st century BCE scholar Choni Hama’agel (Choni The Circle Maker) who once encountered an old man planting a carob tree. The man told Choni that it would take 70 years before it bore fruit. Incredulous, Choni asked why the person would plant if he knew that the tree would not bear fruit in his lifetime. The man answered, “I found carob trees bearing fruit in my lifetime and I will plant trees for future generations to enjoy.”
The federal holiday known as MLK Day, commemorates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We reflect upon and recall the work of a legendary civil rights leader and the movement to effect change in our society. In many communities, including ours, MLK Day has become a day of service and volunteerism.
The challenges Dr. King sought to address such as injustice, hatred, bigotry, and racial bias are enormous. It would have been easy to become overwhelmed and give up, but he did not. Although Dr. King and many of his generation did not live to see the change, they laid the foundation for future generations to both reap the fruit of their work and also plant their own trees.
While the 2 holidays seem disconnected, we see both as involving small, very local acts that plant seeds we hope will yield fruit—literal and metaphorical—in the future. As these two holidays come together this year, they serve as a reminder and powerful calling to us personally, as day school educators, and to all who are committed to social justice, civil rights and societal change, that we need to keep planting seeds for the future! Even if we don’t see the results in our generation we heed the words of Rabbi Tarfon who taught: “It is not one’s duty to finish the work, but neither is one at liberty to desist from it.”
Here at Krieger Schechter Day School, we started “Bunches of Lunches.” Our program started small, in partnership with Jewish Volunteer Connection, producing about 50 lunches, monthly for those in need. Six years later, our program has expanded to where we collect roughly 1,000 lunches bi-monthly at our location. In addition, we have inspired other community institutions to join in our efforts so that the collection happens weekly in multiple locations.
Tu B’Shevat and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day are time markers of potential, celebrating small achievements and long-term growth.The impact of small successes can be felt even if the ultimate goal is not yet achieved. Using the story of Choni and the holiday of Tu B’Shevat as our Jewish lens, we are yet again reminded that the work of Dr. King and the entire Civil Rights movement remains unfinished. It falls on us to continue it for our sake and that of future generations.
ENJOY THIS JNF TU B’SHVAT RESOURCE GUIDE, THE TREE BOOK, featuring this article written by Rabbi Moshe Schwartz and Rabbi Alex Salzberg, Service Learning Coordinator. Rabbi Moshe Schwartz is Head of School and Rabbi Alex Salzberg is Service Learning Coordinator and a member of the Middle School Judaics faculty at Krieger Schechter Day School of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville, Maryland. Rabbi Schwartz is also a member of Rabbis for Israel through JNF-USA.