Next Monday we will celebrate Rosh Chodesh Shevat, the beginning of the new month of Shevat. Of course this month is best known for being the host to the Tu B’Shevat holiday, which we celebrate as the “birthday of the trees.” I have many fond memories of being a student in day school in Los Angeles, attending assemblies where we sang Israeli songs about trees and nature, and then went up into the Santa Monica Mountains to plant evergreen trees. We were taught that children in Israel were doing that very same activity that very same day in the hills around Jerusalem.
As a child in LA, it was perhaps more challenging to understand the nature (pun intended) of Tu B’Shevat than it is here in Chicago. Winter brought cool mornings, yet the sun still shined brightly most days, and the majority of trees and flowers remained in bloom throughout the year…so there wasn’t this sense of transition out of winter in the same way. In Israel, it is around this time that the shkediyah, the almond tree, begins to bloom, signifying that although we are still in the throes of winter, spring isn’t far off, and that the promise of nature renewing itself is very real.
Last year, Shevat took on a new meaning for me and my fiancée, Robyn. On 5 Shevat, Robyn lost her teenage son; and on Tu B’shevat, we brought him to his final rest. There are certain details I don’t wish to discuss here. What I do want to share, however, is that there is something painfully beautiful about recalling Isaac’s memory each year at this time.
When we experience a loss of any kind, there is a period of sadness. Obviously it’s on a completely different scale, but even when we get to the end of autumn and the trees are bare, our mood changes. We know that for the next few months we will have lost something significant in the beauty of nature. And then comes the end of winter with the promise of renewal. Life moves forward. Trees grow new leaves; flowers bud and blossom anew…none exactly as the year before, and none with any hint of how things will develop in the year ahead…but there is this sense of renewal nonetheless. And so on Tu B’Shevat we have a seder. We celebrate the promise of nature by tasting sweet fruits and nuts, saying blessings over the beauty and wonder of nature.
In our home, Tu B’Shevat will be different. This year it marks one year since we buried a beautiful young man. It has been a difficult year. And yet, as our family has taken new shape, it has been a very wonderful year. This year we will be sad as we remember Isaac, but we will be filled with hope and wonder at the power of the universe to propel us forward, as we look ahead to days of celebration, of love, and of new stages in life. And that is the very miracle that makes life so wondrous.
I would suggest to us all that this year we make something special of Tu B’Shevat. Let us find that for which to be grateful in our lives. Let us look ahead with hope to the warm, beautiful days of spring. Let us remember that which has transpired since the last New Year of the Trees, and let us be filled with wonder and excitement for that which is yet to come.
These last weeks have been difficult for our country, particularly for the Jewish community. From a ransacked synagogue in Beverly Hills (where, incidentally, I have taught and sung) to a kosher market shooting in New Jersey to a stabbing in a Rabbi’s home in Monsey, this has been a painful time for us. I will share that my morning ritual is to have a cup of Elite instant coffee while watching the last 15 minutes of the 6 AM news before heading to minyan, and that for the past while I have actually debated in my head whether or not I wish to turn on the TV for fear of more devastating news.
I am not going to use this space to speak against these most recent anti-Semitic acts. The media, our institutions and other organizations are doing plenty of that. I am not going to speak of politics, for that is not my place. What I will write about are two words that, at their core, are very Jewish: faith and hope .
Our entire history as a people has been based on faith and hope. Without faith and hope, we would never have endured centuries of slavery in Egypt, all the while retaining our identity while living and slaving in a land not our own. Without faith and hope we would not have survived the destruction of our Temples or the expulsion from Spain. Without faith and hope, those brave souls who survived the Shoah and those who did not would not have tried with their whole beings to make it through. And without faith and hope we would not have a Jewish homeland in the State of Israel today.
At first glance these words are very similar, but there is an important distinction between them. Faith is the firm belief in what is, and hope is the desire for and commitment to ensuring a better future. Faith grounds us and hope drives us. Faith is what allows us to go to sleep at night peacefully, and hope is what encourages us to set our alarms and make plans for tomorrow.
This week we end a decade. I see lots of Facebook posts and receive greetings from friends of “Happy Secular New Year.” I must tell you that I am bothered by the addition of the word “secular” to the greeting. My grandparents and my father came to this country with hope for a better life for our family—a life in which we could retain our rich and special Jewish identities and at the same time be part of the fabric that is America. When we add “secular” to the greeting, we create a separation between “us” and “them,” and I think that particularly given recent events, we would do well to reconsider that. When we separate ourselves out, even internally, we give permission for “them” to do the same. By virtue of living in this country at this time, we share in the joy of a new year. It is a time for families and friends to be together, for us to watch whomever the new host of the Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve is, and to count backwards from ten as we watch an enormous crystal ball descend where a large Minolta sign was once hung on a New York City skyscraper as millions of people crowd the street below. Yes, it is a time for celebration. It is a time to dream and to resolve. And, it is a time for hope.
I hope that next year will be better—for us, and for the world. And what drives my hope is faith. I have faith in our values, I have faith in our ability to catalyze change, and I have faith in each one of us as a leader in our own circles. If we each take charge of a small, broken corner of the world, as a community we may be able to repair one pane in the large window of the universe…and that will make a difference.
We pray that the memories of those lost to acts of senseless violence and hatred be a blessing, and serve as an inspiration for us to continue the sacred work of tikkun olam, repairing or improving the world. We pray for their families. We pray that those injured will heal, in body and in spirit. We pray that communities directly affected will again find a sense of calm and security.
May the third decade of the 21st century be one of greater peace and stability, of understanding and appreciation of the other. May we know good health, deep love, and only good things. I look forward to seeing you in shul and being able to personally wish each of you a Happy New Year.
Why a blog?
I will use this space to capture my occasional musings on life, love, music and Torah...as well as post my "Thursday Thoughts" every few weeks, written for my congregation in suburban Chicago...