Monday 21 January will be Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees. This day, a marker for calculating fruit tithes, could have been relegated to obscurity once most Jews were no longer involved in agriculture. But trees are a powerful symbol, and Tu BiShvat has been invested with new meanings over the years. The ways that successive generations have celebrated Tu BiShvat reflect their own thoughts about trees and what they represent.
In this country, Tu BiShvat always seems to arrive at a rather strange time of year. The trees are bare, their leaves long since trampled into mud. While in Israel it is the time for planting and the trees may blossom, here even the buds have not yet formed. Spring is still distant.
Looking around the land at this time, it is easy to think of the verse from Isaiah:
‘What trees remain of its scrub
Shall be so few that a boy may record them.’ (Isaiah 10:19)
Isaiah is referring to a time of retribution, when God will burn and consume thorns and thistles. While this destruction is to be visited on Israel’s mighty oppressors – great trees ‘in their majesty will fall’ – only a remnant of Israel will return. It is a desolate image. But it is at this moment of desolation that Isaiah offers hope:
‘But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse,
A twig shall sprout from his stock.’ (Isaiah 11:1)
Following the Second World War, Jewish survivors in Europe living in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps and elsewhere formed communities. They called themselves ‘She’erit Hapleitah’, or ‘the surviving remnant’. While still living in horrific conditions, often in former concentration camps, they organised a political, cultural and religious life. Survivors established schools and newspapers. Marriage and birth rates soared. The emblem of She’erit Hapleitah was a tree stump, from which sprouted a new shoot.
The courage and faith it must have taken to rebuild life while still imprisoned is extraordinary. Members of She’erit Hapleitah were stateless and living in limbo. They had survived unspeakable trauma. But they did not wait to reach their new countries to recreate community. They did not wait for new life, for a sign of hope.
We cannot always wait to celebrate spring. It is not when the buds come out, when the flowers bloom, that we need to recognise the new year. It is before: in the cold days when the sky is still dark and the trees are barren. We must come together and organise, with faith that the world will be reborn. By celebrating Tu BiShvat now, before life has re-emerged from the winter, we bring on the spring.