The Two-Way Street | Tu Bishevat: Coming in from the storms

Rabbi Fredi Cooper
on February 7, 2020

I sit down to write these words in my last days in Israel after a month-long visit. The view from my window paints the reality of the season, both the chronological monthly season and the mood of the season in Israel and in our own United States.

The view is ever-changing. Just yesterday, I was outside drinking with the sun on my face, at the water’s edge on the beach. The day felt like anything was possible and that there was life, vigor and goodness all around me. I just needed to remain outdoors living and feeling the vibrancy of the air in Tel Aviv.

And Israel is so intense that, when the weather changes, it reflects all of the electricity that resides in its air.

So as I write today, I see fury outside my window. The winds are fierce, bending the palm trees until they seem ready to snap. The branches fly off toward my windows — threatening to break them — and the rain pours down in a raging flood. No matter how many winter visits I make to Israel, it seems that these storms always show up with all of their fury, and somehow Israel is always surprised by them and seems totally unprepared for the strength and the destruction that they can bring. This storm has me in the dark for twelve hours before Shabbat, and I pace the floor of my apartment in fear that when Shabbat arrives, there will be no sustenance for my family and only the light of the Shabbat candles.

And just as the storm roared in, it sauntered out just in time for Shabbat to arrive with food on the table and prayers in our hearts. During Kabbalat Shabbat at Beit Tefillah Yisraeli that night, we all shared our thankfulness that no one was injured and that Shabbat had come in with new calm and peace all around us — and light to be able to daven from the siddur.

This scene seemed to mark for me the coming of Tu Bishevat — a holiday that comes to us literally in the darkest and stormiest season of the year, embodying a precarious moment in the cycle of the year and the cycle of nature. Winter in Israel reminds us mightily that, like the weather, there are forces tearing at the fabric of life and that we must seek succor from these storms — and more so, try our best to find ways to extract meaning in life and take action to protect what is most precious to us.

And so we look to spring and the rebirth that comes when storms will no longer mar our days. Then Tu Bishevat arrives and brings us the holiday that revolves around trees. Trees drinking the rains. Trees flowering and then bringing forth fruits of all kinds. This holiday that comes to us in winter reminds us that we must have optimism that the dark and stormy days will pass and the palm tree, now bending in the fierce winds, will stand tall again and bear life-giving fruit for us.

Like the storms that I saw from my window, I experience the storms of divisions and strife daily in the political discourse both in Israel and in the United States. The “trees” of government are being bent to their limits with new winds lashing at their foundations daily. Optimism is elusive, but needed. We can look to the chance that the storms can abate and that flowering and fruits of wisdom can still possibly influence the “spring” that lies ahead, especially in Israel with another election on the horizon.

The flow of life in Israel’s political system can be restored, and we have a crucial role in encouraging and supporting this possibility.

It is an old Ashkenazi custom to recite Psalm 104 on Tu Bishevat, and I choose words from the psalm to highlight our charge to see to this flowering of a better spring in our land:

God looks at the earth, and it trembles
Touches the mountains, and they smoke
I will sing to the One as long as I live.
All of my life I will chant hymns to my God
May my prayer be pleasing to God.
( Psalms 104:32-34)

When we see the trembling earth all around us, we must find the strength to sing out and act! We can bring our actions in this time of rebirth together. We experience the problems in a Knesset in Israel that is dominated by forces that are destructive to the values that we all hoped our homeland would grow to represent. The Trump Plan and its endorsement by the Israeli government darkens the horizon further and increases the urgency of our response. Our song cries out for this chaos and disappointment to cease. In our unity of purpose may we find the way to continue to be pleasing in our works.

Rabbi Fredi Cooper, Ed.D has served as a congregational rabbi. She taught for most of her rabbinic career at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Before becoming a rabbi, she had an active practice as a psychologist. Rabbi Cooper has two daughters who live in Israel, and she visits there several times a year.

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