Friday, January 29, 2021

In this Moment: The Color Purple; The Kiddush Cup Craftsman; Jew By (Whose) Choice

In This Moment
Shabbat-O-Gram, January 29, 2021

Scenes from Tu B'Shevat...

Tu B'Shevat Adult Seder
Tu B'Shevat Adult Seder

Tu B'Shevat Family Seder
Tu B'Shevat Family Seder



This week is Shabbat Shira (the Sabbath of Song), when we read the portion Beshallach, featuring the crossing of the Red Sea.  Here's a unique midrash on that Red Sea passage, from Manga Mutiny, a Biblically-accurate retelling of Genesis through Exodus 15:27 presented in the authentic Japanese Manga style.  
(Thank you to Ethan H for sharing this - and happy birthday next week!)

See the bottom of this email to find out what happens!

Shabbat Shalom!

We begin with some sad news.  The name Gene Wendell probably does not ring a bell to most of you, but he has a special place in many of your homes.  You see, Gene, who passed away this week, has been engraving kiddush cups for TBE B'nai Mitzvah for 67 years.  That means that if you are 80 years old or younger, and your Bar/Bat Mitzvah was here, that kiddush cup that you use on Friday nights or Pesach, or had under your huppah, or that just gleams proudly from your mantle - well, it was lovingly engraved by Gene.

He took the job very seriously, although there were times (many) when he would knock on my office door just before Shabbat, right under the wire, to deliver the goods. He always had a question about Judaism or a story to share - about his involvement at his synagogue in Norwalk or other things going on in his life.  You can read his obituary here.  

I'll miss Gene. I'll think of him every time I lift one of "his" cups under a huppah.  There's a lesson here for us.  Behind every treasure you own, every book, every car, every piece of jewelry, every hand-made bagel - everything - there is a Gene Wendell. Often many of them.  You will never see most of these faces, but they are connected to us in the deepest possible manner.  

This Shabbat, let's raise our glasses - our cups - to Eugene Wendell. In fact, if you are coming to Friday night services, bring your TBE cup with you, we'll lift them all together, and I'll send the photo to Sue, his wife.

On to other matters of great urgency....

- These days, it seems like the forces of hope and despair are engaged in an all-out war, especially regarding Covid-19.  Israel is being touted for being way ahead of the curve regarding vaccinations, yet as the chart below shows, the crisis of infections is not abating.  

You would think that with so many having been vaccinated the infection rate would be going down much more. In his weekly newsletter, Marc Shulman looks into these sobering trends.  Meanwhile, if you are looking for an uplifting moment, yo've got to listen to this new "We are the World" style song created by Israel's most popular musicians (thank you to Aviva Maller for sharing):

Katan Aleinu (קטן עלינו,
Katan Aleinu (קטן עלינו, "We Got This") with English subtitles

- Remember when I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about the regal nature of the color purple and how it connects to the ancient history of the Israelites and the Curse (and Blessing) of Canaan, as well as the African American experience?

Well this week sent us major news on that front, an unprecedented archaeological discovery:


Ancient cloths with royal purple dye found in Israel, dated to King David's time (Times of Israel) This is a big deal. Israeli researchers have found three textile scraps near the southern tip of Israel colored with the biblically described "argaman" royal purple dye, and dated them to circa 1,000 BCE - the era of King David. The earliest ever such finds in this region, the vibrant cloths add tangible weight, in particular, to the Bible's account of an Edomite kingdom in the area at that time.

Here's the front page story in today's Ha'aretz: 

More recommended reading....

- Over 1100 Jewish clergy from around the country have come together to impress upon the Biden Administration and 117th Congress the urgency of addressing the rights and safety of refugees and asylum seekers.  Here's the letter - I'm proud to have signed it.

- I'll be moderating a panel discussion on Climate Change next Thursday. An in-depth conversation with national leaders, the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, founder of Hip Hop Caucus, and Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, a leading climate scientist. The event is co-hosted by the Hartford Seminary and the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network.  This paragraph from an op-ed from the NYT, "Let's Say Goodbye to Normal," by Roy Scranton, was particularly alarming.

- Our growing partnership with the Black community, and in particular members of Union Baptist Church, has borne tremendous fruit - last week's shared cooking experience was just another example.  SAVE THE DATE of Feb. 21 at 5:30 PM for a panel discussion involving the two congregations, along with the AJC, JCC and others from the community.  The focus will be the film, "Shared Legacies: The African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance.  See the trailer here.  This groundbreaking film will be made available for viewing before the program.

- If you missed my talk last night on Jewish views on "The Good Life," as part of the Interfaith Council's Midwinter Theological Seminar, here's the Zoom video:

Rabbi Hammerman Midwinter Theological Study 1-28-21
Rabbi Hammerman Midwinter Theological Study 1-28-21

- Another save-the-date.  We are doing another Zoom Seder, this time on the second night of Passover, Sunday evening, March 28.  

Jew By (Whose) Choice

was fascinated by a story shared by Forward editor (and former Hoffman lecturer) Jodi Roduren, who wrote in her weekly email about an awkward moment that recently occurred.  The Forward wanted to honor Kamala Harris's blended Jewish family, and in particular her 22-year old stepdaughter Ella Emhoff, only to discover that she is not Jewish.  

Wait, what?

Didn't she come up with the name "Momela" for her step-mom?  Isn't her dad being called the unofficial "Second Mensch?"  Perhaps we should have understood the subtle difference between "Momela" and the more Jew-ish "Mamela."

According to Ella's spokesperson Joseph David Viola, "Ella is not Jewish."Ella's dad has been "celebrating Judaism for a few years now but out of an independent search," and Ella was living on her own in New York during this period. "It's not something she grew up with," he explained. "Ella truly has no qualms with the faith, but she does not want to speak on behalf of Judaism, as she does not celebrate herself."  

Funny that he used the expression "celebrate." Has he not read his Lenny Bruce?
Gentiles celebrate; Jews observe. If Ella celebrated Jewish holidays, she would be the first person to do so!

Rudoren then goes onto explore the implications of this surprise reply for our Jewish conversations on intermarriage and assimilation,  and the increasingly complicated world of Jewish (and Jew-ish) identity that we inhabit. (Incidentally, not to toot my own horn, but I think I was the first to employ the expression "Jew-ish"though I can't take credit for "Jewish-adjacent).
Basically, in a well-intentioned desire to be inclusive, combined with a not-as-well intentioned desire to add a few more trophies to our Jewish "who's who" treasure chest, we added Ella to the fold against her will.  It was all a misunderstanding, of course, but maybe we should have asked before assuming.  

Yes, her father is Jewish, but we really don't need to gerrymander Ella in. There are enough famous Jews to go around. There's a cottage industry of websites out there identifying famous Jews and half-Jews.

We've got plenty of unknown Jews to discover.  About a decade ago, a team of geneticists uncovered explicit evidence of mass conversions of Sephardic Jews to Catholicism in 15th and 16th-century Spain and Portugal. The study, based on an analysis of Y-chromosomes and reported first in the American Journal of Human Genetics, indicates that 20 percent of the population of the Iberian Peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry. That's about 10 million people. So we can leave Ella alone.

But chromosomes don't make a Jew Jewish either.  Neither does having a Jewish father - or mother, for that matter.  Ultimately, we are all Jews by choice.  

This week I had the pleasure of performing my first (and TBE's first) Zoom conversion ceremony.  The candidate, who now lives in Boston, immersed in the safe, socially distanced warm waters of the progressive Mayyim Hayyim mikva in Newton, MA, while three Jewish clergy "witnessed" the proceedings from three remote locations in Connecticut.  So where did the conversion occur?  Who knows - but it happened, and it was very real and very meaningful.  We are all Jews by Choice.

And Ella Emhoff is a non-Jew by choice.  Some will consider this to be tragic news, claiming that another soul has been lost to the Jewish people.  I don't see it that way at all.  Certainly, it would be nice if more children with Jewish ancestry could have the positive, immersive Jewish childhood experiences that might lead one to answer the question differently at age 22.  But age 22 is a time of questioning for most people, so I don't hold that against her, not do I indict her father for her reply.  Maybe someday she will feel comfortable taking the same plunge taken by a Jew by Choice in Newton this week. It is never too late for an immersive Jewish experience.

Jodi Bromberg, who runs the interfaith outreach website 18doors (we have a close relationship with them), told Jodi Roduren, "I don't think we are good as a Jewish community at talking about the complexity and nuance of identity -- even the labels that we use don't always reflect our ongoing practices. We've got to embrace the messiness," she added. "Young-adult children are free to make their own spiritual and religious decisions -- and will whether we want them to or not. But that's not fixed for any of us."

Theodore Herzl was one of the most important Jews of all time. Yet none of his three children was Jewish and only one descendant, a grandson, was a Zionist - and he committed suicide. Nancy Pelosi has Jewish grandchildren. Eight of Moses Mendelssohn's nine grandchildren were baptized. Thomas Jefferson reportedly had Jewish ancestors (and we know of course about his African-American descendants). We've become the La Guardia Airport of faith traditions; so many coming in, so many going out.

Oh, and Fiorello La Guardia had a Jewish parent, in fact, as does Sean Penn.

The Herzl family history was tragic, but no more so than the ancestry of King David. His great grandmother was Ruth, a Moabite, whose on-the-fly conversion following the tragic deaths of her husband and brother-in-law is recalled every year on Shavuot. 

A Midrash states that every Jew was present at Sinai, including all future generations. If David and Ruth were there, what about Fiorello, Sean and Jefferson's progeny of all hues? What about 10 million Iberians, whose only crime was that their ancestors were forced to convert? We can't retroactively crop them out of the Sinai family picture.
And I won't cut Ella out either.  Nor will I paste her in against her will.  The lesson here is that nothing is static about Jewish identity.  It is always flowing, like the living waters of the mikva.  

Or the flowing, splashing waves of the Red Sea.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

30,000 lies: From Holocaust denial to ‘Camp Auschwitz’ (Times of Israel)


30,000 lies: From Holocaust denial to ‘Camp Auschwitz’

If you're willing to lie about the greatest moral crime ever perpetrated, everything else is child's play
JAN 27, 2021, 9:11 AM
White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, January 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, January 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The 30,573 lies began with Holocaust denial.

Just a week after taking office in January of 2017, on International Holocaust Day, the Trump administration chose a symbolic and fitting target for their first major post-inauguration assault on truth (that is, unless you consider the size of the inauguration itself “major”), and it was the Holocaust.

The White House issued what should have been a routine statement commemorating the Shoah, but whether intentionally or not, someone got it very wrong.

“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust,” the statement read. “It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”

Nice wording…except for the inconvenient omission of a certain people whose name begins with “J.”  Who exactly were these “innocent people?”

Whether or not it was premeditated, what could not be denied was the symbolism and pure cruelty of Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s subsequent clumsy assertions regarding Bashar al-Assad, Hitler and gas, along with his doubling down on an International Holocaust Day statement that was baldly Judenrein.

Spicer said, “We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” And then, after reflecting, he elaborated, saying, “I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”

On one level, Spicer had a point in comparing Assad’s actions, in gassing his own citizens, to Hitler’s — but in a manner having nothing to do with gas, and everything to do with the lies and distortions used to cover up the crime. Assad’s and Hitler’s actions were analogous in this way: Assad’s ludicrous claim that the images of suffocating children were staged by child actors was reminiscent of the staged, infamous visit of the Red Cross to Terezin in 1944. The resultant propaganda film of the camp fooled the world into thinking that a notorious concentration camp was the happiest place on earth, filled with tanned, toned, and beautiful vacationers, who were, in fact, actors.

But the Big Lie was allowed to stand.

Trump’s un-retracted lie about the Holocaust, made even before the inauguration bleachers were taken down, was a harbinger of what would follow. Once he was allowed to get away with an act of blatant Holocaust denial, rejecting a free and fair election would become child’s play for him. One Big Lie begets another. Trump’s reign began with a simple act of Holocaust denial, and then, 30,000 lies later, it ended with “Camp Auschwitz” at the Capitol.

The Torah affirms that deliberate deception on a scale such as this is a serious violation of the norms of a civilized society. The rabbinic sages wrote, “There are seven kinds of thieves — the first of them is the one who deceives people.”

At least Spicer later apologized for his outlandish claims, for which he must be given credit. But here is why Sean Spicer’s fumbling, bumbling, pathetic comparison of Assad to Hitler matters, despite the apology. And here is why the Trump administration’s steadfast refusal to follow the Spicer route and issue a similar retraction for its infamous Jew-free Holocaust Day statement also matters.

Holocaust denial is the canary in the coal mine of Orwellian doublethink, the mother of all fake news, in that it not only defies all standards of empirical science and rejects meticulously documented history, which any act of historical denial might do, but, in this case, doing so also attempts to whitewash the greatest moral crime ever perpetrated.

There is, and there never has been, a greater, more bald-faced lie than the denial of the Holocaust. That fact alone warranted an official, immediate and unconditional White House retraction to its Holocaust Day statement.

When the Torah speaks of the command to remember the evil of Amalek, it is speaking to our generation specifically about keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust. But the command to remember Amalek is also a summons to preserve the essence of all objective truth. Holocaust denial is simultaneously an act of both of pure evil and unadulterated falsehood. The Holocaust was objectively, verifiably, utterly — and not alternatively — a fact. That fact is one of the pillars of our epoch, a fundamental truth, and a foundation upon which we are trying to reconstruct a civilized society.

In Judaism, the Big Lie is a Big Sin, and there is no bigger lie than Holocaust denial. The simple act of remembering is an affirmation of honesty and humanity in the face of nihilistic cynicism.

The denial of the Holocaust-truth is a red line that no public figure should ever be allowed to cross. Once that truth is established, we can begin to work some other basic truths. Facts matter. Words matter, especially now, when the rising popularity and enabling of white supremacy is enabling Holocaust denial to an unprecedented degree.  Now, even in the halls of the desecrated Capitol.

The Book of Exodus states that when the Israelites received the Torah they said, “Na’a’seh v’nishma,” often translated as, “We will obediently act and then we will understand.” But the word “na’a’seh” connotes active engagement, not blind obedience. In our age of bots and fake news, a post-Holocaust reading of the verse would reframe this verse to be better understood as, “We will grapple with each word to assess its validity, and then we will understand.” Each of us needs to painstakingly critique social media posts passed along by people we love. On all sides of the political spectrum, the time has long since passed for blindly sharing or retweeting without first being sure that the source is reputable. We need to be the ones to ask, all the time, is this true? Na’aseh V’Nishma, the post-Holocaust ethic demands: We will scrutinize and then understand.

There are many reasons to refute Holocaust denial.  But, as we saw four years ago on January 27, if Holocaust denial is allowed to stand, other lies will surely follow, and democracy itself will be in peril.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is author, most recently, of “Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously” (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020).

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The restored power of words (Medium )

One of the most inspiring moments of week’s Inauguration was the recitation by the 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman of her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”  When asked what images from the January 6 attack on the Capitol inspired her, she said something to the effect that she doesn’t perceive the world in images, but in words.  She talked about how her speech impediment had taught her about the unique potency of words, which she considered much more evocative than visual or felt experiences.

And she’s right. We’ve known it all along. But we’ve forgotten.  We say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a thousand well-chosen words can paint a much clearer portrait of an event than a perfect photo.  Amanda Gorman reminded us of that with her poem, and she managed to do it in just 713 words.

Gorman’s masterwork reminded us of just how word starved we’ve become, as we emerge from a period where literary (and all other) expertise was undervalued, where even daily security briefings went routinely unread.

In the Torah, as in life, words matter, and a sensitivity to the power of every letter – all  304,805 of them, to be precise – is of paramount importance.

Gorman’s poem is a reminder that we now must return to the landscape of language – and as we do, we see that it has suffered nearly as much as other, more natural landscapes, the flooded shorelines, burning forests and parched fields of our desolate world.

Certain words that used to be innocuous have been tarnished forever by the past four years.  Think of “ice.”  It used to be something that you ask for your glass of Coca Cola.  Now if you say “ice” and “coke” in the same sentence, it might have nothing to do with grabbing a cold drink. “ICE” has been tarnished with the fear of abrupt deportation.  One of the most gratifying moments for me this past week, in fact, was when the executive order was signed that effectively ended the random seizures of immigrants.

In that field of tarnished words, we must include the verb “to trump.”  For the past few years, we’ve had to apologize every time we’ve talked about something “trumping” something else.  We’ve strained for alternatives, often settling on awkward formulations like, “bested,” “topped,” “superseded” or “exceeded” rather than “trumped.”  The substitutes work to a degree, but no one can hold an “exceed card.”

And so, as we try to restore the power of language, we wonder whether it will ever be possible to Make Trump a Verb Again.

Donald Trump’s Orwellian attack on truth took a terrible toll on words like “patriot,” “freedom,” “free and fair elections” and “religion.”  “Facts” were virally infected when the word “alternative,” was allowed to get within six feet, as it did early on.  We joke about invented words like “covfefe,” but it is no laughing matter that the truth took a battering.  Bigly.

Some words clanged their way into the room, desecrating our verbal landscape like that Confederate flag in the Rotunda — words like “libtard” spewed like diarrhea from bilious brains, offending especially those like me who have loved ones with intellectual challenges.   Trump’s Twitter trash spared no one, even defaming our canine friends by calling his enemies dogs.  And his responses to any presumed provocations were so predictable as to become cliches, each one degrading our language even more.

Gorman’s poem reminded us of how much we’ve lost, not only to Trump, but to our Covid-induced year of degraded communications.  The pandemic (another word whose meaning has been transformed) has separated us not merely from one another, but also from relationships and travel, the oxygen that fuels new experiences and with them literary flight.  Words were on a respirator before Amanda Gorman rescued them; and paradoxically, only that rescue awakened us to the depth of our descent.  We realized how far we had sunk into the swamp of platitude and convention, how out of sorts our words had become.

Fittingly, while the word “trump” ceased to be a verb connoting bravado, no problem with Biden, who seemed to be bidin’ his time in Iowa and New Hampshire, and we are still biding our time, patiently, while awaiting inoculation.  Yes, the verb “bide” — like patient Joe himself – has survived the war on language.

Other words too managed to hide among the ruins of the four-year Orwellian assault and emerge from the furnace unscathed.  And some are reappearing after an enforced hiatus — words like “decency,”  “dignity,” “civility,” and my personal favorite and nominee for 2021 word of the year, “mensch.” (Full disclosure: I wrote a book about how to be one).

Words can transform worlds.  In Exodus 12, as the tenth plague in Egypt is dramatically depicted, we are introduced to the word that will become central to many faiths: pesach, a term that has developed multiple meanings through centuries of linguistic evolution.  Only in the 16th century did Christian scholar William Tyndale first translate it as “passover,” based on a suggestion by some classical Jewish commentators that it is connected to the word “to skip.” But that is not the only possible meaning of pesach, and when you think about it, why would we want to demean God as playing some kind of primordial game of hopscotch over Israelite homes?

Two other theories of the development of the word pesach are much more satisfying.  One, from the midrash and the medieval commentator Rashi, says it means “to have compassion.”  Another, based on Isaiah 31:5 suggests that it means “to protect.”

So, if those understandings hold, God’s destroyer didn’t “pass over” the houses with the blood on the doorposts.  God had compassion and protected those who resided therein.

What an amazing transformation in language.  To take a mechanical, emotionless act like “passing over,” and injecting it with compassion, turning a bloodstained home into a shelter, a place of divine caring and of sanctity.

Kind of like what happened at the Capitol this week.

Granted, we’ve come too far to change the name of the holiday from “Passover” to “Compassion-not-over” or some such.  In any case, the word pesach should not be a harbinger of vengeance, vindication, or of passing over people that you care for;  it should be a celebration of the power of love.

There’s one other meaning for pesach that is proposed by commentators. The word “pisay-ach” can also mean “lame,” as in Isaiah 35:6 “And the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing out loud.” Perhaps it’s not the angel of death who is doing the leaping, but the rest of us, those of us challenged by the afflictions of life, yet able to overcome enslavement… those who can’t walk but suddenly are able to leap.  Just as those with speech impediments, like Amanda Gorman and Joe Biden – and Moses, for that matter – who were never “dumb” in the least, are able to sing out loud with magical words that inspire us all.

TBE Family and Adult Tu B'shevat Seders, 5781

Our Tu B'Shevat Seder for Adults was Amazing...


 And our Family Seder had it all - even a conga line!

Friday, January 22, 2021

In This Moment: Rolling Up Our Sleeves

In This Moment
 Shabbat-O-Gram, January 22, 2021

Shabbat Shalom!

So nu? Bo!

I'll speak more about this eventful week at services this evening. But as we embark on this next phase of our journey together, the first line from this week's portion comes to mind. Moses is commanded by God to "come to Pharaoh," (Bo el Par'aoh). Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the Zohar asks: Why does the Torah say "Come to Pharoah", it should have been "Go to Pharaoh", why say "come"? Rabbi Ashlag replies: "The difference between come and go, is that "come" means that we go together, as one says to a friend: 'come'."

It's true that in Hebrew, we often will say "bo" idiomatically as a means of starting a class, a project or a conversation.  It's similar to the way we might use the word "nu" in Yiddish.  "Nu...let's get started." (Here's some history of "nu" from the Forward).  I'm not sure there is an English parallel.  I suppose there's "so..." which is often used as an initiator in conversation.  (Next time you find yourself watching talking heads on cable news, first ask yourself whether you might be better off reading a book or taking a walk.  It's time to breathe deeply and let the world be boring for a little while.  But then, count how many times people begin what they are saying with the word "so.")

"So" and "bo" are far from synonymous.  The former is a simple silence breaker, a neutral expression designed to shift the topic or answer a question.  Bo brings with it a sense of purpose.  It's a word that summons us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.  It's not merely an initiator of action, it's a call to action.  In English "come" is usually a command reserved for dogs, one of the first words most dogs learn.  It's also only the second Torah portion whose name is a command.  The first, from Genesis, is "Go!" the command to Abraham (Lech Lecha) to leave their homeland.  God sends Abraham and Sarah off on that journey.  With Moses, God announces that God is coming along for the ride.

In Hebrew, we begin a new venture with "Bo."  Come.  And in the true spirit of Hebrew, the journey is never taken alone.  As Rabbi Ashlag states, it is a journey that we must take together. 

This new journey that began on Wednesday is one that is best taken together.  Unity has all kinds of political implications, which will sort themselves out.  I'm talking about a more fundamental unity, one that sees the innate dignity in everyone around us, one that sees everyone, no matter who they voted for, as a fellow traveler.  

So "bo natchil."  Come, let's begin.  Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work!


Here are some interesting items to read and watch.

Check out this Israeli song of hope during the latest wave of Covid 
(make sure to set it for cc to get English subtitles)

שחר נהרי, נועם צוריאלי, אייל מזיג - כשנצא מזה | Kshenetse Mize
שחר נהרי, נועם צוריאלי, אייל מזיג - כשנצא מזה | Kshenetse Mize (When We Emerge from This)

And speaking of soaring anthems of hope, read Amanda Gorman's poem again and again...

Or better yet, watch it:

Amanda Gorman's inaugural poem 'The Hill We Climb'
Amanda Gorman's inaugural poem 
'The Hill We Climb'

Watch Senator Warnock's sermon at the Temple in Atlanta last Shabbat.

Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat featuring annual sermon by Rev. Raphael G. Warnock
Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat featuring annual sermon by Rev. Raphael G. Warnock

What Trees Can Teach Us

Join Katie Kaplan and me for our adult Tu B'Shevat Seder this Wednesday at 7 PM.  Go to this Zoom link to participate. Passcode: 661785.  We'll explore the kabbalistic, Zionist and environmentalist roots of this increasingly popular holiday.  As with a Passover seder, we'll drink four cups, representing the four worlds, which represent the four spiritual realms in which we live. To participate fully, it helps to have some white and red wine or grape juice nearby, along with examples of the symbolic foods listed in the chart below.  And below that you'll find my own personal tribute to trees.  You can preview our haggadah or take a look at another example.  Join us on Wednesday as we inaugurate a new TBE tradition!

Tu B'Shevat has changed over time, reinventing itself in at least four incarnations: Talmudic, Kabbalist, Zionists and environmentalist.  Now we can add one more dimension: relational.  trees are teaching humans how we might all get along.
Deuteronomy 20 asks, "Are trees of the field human" that they should callously be cut down?  No, they aren't human - but the Torah implies that they might be able to teach humans a lot about how to act toward innocent bystanders in times of war.  From the very beginning, trees have been seen as receptacles of our highest aspirations - the Torah itself is called a "tree of life."
I've always been inspired by Shel Silverstein's timeless classic, "The Giving Tree" (which you can read here in full).  It speaks of how a tree continues to give of itself long after it is no longer useful, even when it becomes merely a stump.  It's a lovely poem, but the premise, that trees actually form relationships, seems a little far-fetched.
Or does it?
Now we are finding that trees indeed interact with those around them. Dr. Tamir Klein of Israel's Weitzman Institute recently made a startling discovery that neighboring trees relate with one another in complex ways. Klein found that the same trees not only compete for resources such as light and nutrients, but also engage in sharing.  Trees form communities and protect one another, and amazingly, they also form families, with parents protecting their children.
These discoveries are echoed in the recent bestseller, "The Hidden Life of Trees,"  by Peter Wohlleben, which I picked up a while back.  The complexities of a tree's ecosystem are mind-boggling.  As Wohlleben writes, "There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet. A mere teaspoonful contains many miles of fungal filaments. All these work the soil, transform it, and make it so valuable for the trees."
When strong trees get sick, as happens inevitably, other trees rally to their support, through root networks and crowning in ways that maximize water and sunlight for those who need it most.  This all plays out at a much slower pace than humans are used to - but it does play out.  Trees mount defenses.  Trees even feel pain. Leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt.
Wohlleben speaks of a "wood wide web" of soil fungi connecting trees and other vegetation "in an intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods."  He writes of how trees communicate through emitting and interpreting scents, often as warnings when predators approach.
"If every tree were looking out only for itself," he adds, "then quite a few of them would never reach old age."
Here's another gem from the book:
Under the canopy of the trees, daily dramas and moving love stories are played out. Here is the last remaining piece of Nature, right on our doorstep, where adventures are to be experienced and secrets discovered. And who knows, perhaps one day the language of trees will eventually be deciphered, giving us the raw material for further amazing stories. Until then, when you take your next walk in the forest, give free rein to your imagination-in many cases, what you imagine is not so far removed from reality, after all!
While comes as no shock to us that trees are living beings, perhaps it is time to stop calling them "things." Decades ago, Martin Buber wrote in "I and Thou,"
I contemplate a tree. I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of blue silver ground. I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, thriving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air - and the growing itself in the darkness.... One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity. Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.
I'm not suggesting that we stop picking fruit or using wood for our homes.  Even Wohlleben acknowledges that in order to survive, we need the help of organic substances of other species.  All animals do.
But just as we have now come to understand that other animals too have complicated emotional existences (yes, even fruit flies have feelings), we need to see that tree as a fellow traveler on this increasingly fragile planet, a "thou" rather than an "it," and one not existing in isolation but living in relationship with all of us.
Shel Silverstein was not far off base in bringing us that immortal tree-buddy.  Neither was Disney's Pocahontas.  And if we can begin to anticipate every walk in the woods as chance to forge new and fascinating relationships, sort of like a high school dance with sap, maybe our world would be much better off.
Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman