By Leah Garber
Today, we mark Tu B’Shvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, a Jewish holiday that has transformed through the years in contemporary Israel into a beautiful celebration of nature. A day we dedicate to cherishing the environment, ecological awareness, and planting trees in recognition of Mother Earth.
Like everything else, holidays and days of joy now fade in Israel’s current reality. Celebration dulls as the festivity is covered with a veil of sadness and grief, given the pain we have been wrapped in for the last 111 days.
The good soil of our beloved homeland blesses us with its fine fruits. We flowered the arid desert soil and raised a thriving crop. Beautiful flowers decorate the streets of the cities, the ornamental gardens, and our Shabbat tables.
Our good soil, which usually spoils us with its blessing, changed its purpose this year, and instead of giving to us, through no fault of its own, it is taking our loved ones from us.
The fields of the Western Negev have been plowed and sown. Kibbutzim farmers tightened the furrows, offering one last hug for the soft seedlings just planted as they whispered to the soil to shelter these delicate ripening crops.
But diligent hands and blessed soil are not enough. Rain is needed, too. On Simchat Torah, synagogues were filled with people who gathered to chant together the traditional prayer for rain, which seals the arid Israeli summer and heralds the coming of autumn, welcoming blessed rains that will water the fields. We ended the prayer with hope for healing, change, and cleansing rain to wash away summer’s dust and past sediments.
But this year’s prayer for rain, 111 days ago, was different.
Nothing celebratory. The tears that accompanied the pleas of synagogue cantors were tears of pain as the news of Hamas’s attack started to arrive, violating the day’s sanctity. Those prayers were now joined with a plea for Israel’s salvation.
Kibbutzim fields were blackened under the tires of murderers’ vehicles rampaging in from Gaza. The troughed fields were mixed with hostility and violence. Seedlings were uprooted, and the goodness of this land was plundered. Th day’s inferno consumed our hopes for new crops. The fire of hatred burned alongside the flow of salty tears of pain.
And our blessed earth made room to contain our many dead, the best of this land’s sons and daughters. Blood, severed limbs, remnants of life, and bits of humans piled up as former fields of prosperity turned into fields of carnage.
But nature is stronger than any human plot, and seasons do not consider our mood and are not attentive to the atmosphere of grief. The fields, which not too long ago, were still red with blood, are now filled with beautiful red anemones greeting Tu B’shvat. The color red of death became the red of life, of growth. Almond trees fill our forest, heralding the coming of the holiday. These blooms insist that we lift our eyes from the great sadness to their flowering, healing our souls with their beauty.
The dissonance between nature’s insistence on fulfilling its purpose and our desire to delay celebrating is painful.
Life has power, but the time has not yet come to admire nature’s beauty. Not as long as 136 Israelis are held captive by the barbaric Hamas, in sub-human conditions, in existential, immediate danger. Not as long as our soldiers fight fiercely and die in battle, not as long as Israeli families, refugees from their homes cannot return to their homes.
But the land, which is tired of death and which can no longer contain more graves, insists, and in Kibbutz Be’eri, where 90 of whose members were murdered on October 7 and 26 were kidnapped to Gaza, they began to sow the wheat fields, some of which are adjacent to the border with Gaza.
Many other southern fields reclaimed their crown of seeds and plants so that when spring comes, there will be something to harvest.
In northern fields, amid the constant threat of rocket fire from Lebanon, farmers insist on working the land, plowing and weeding, with a hope for bountiful crops.
Many homes in Israel and around the world will celebrate Tu B’Shvat tonight. We will feast around dried fruits and cherish the blessing of the earth.
This coming Shabbat, 90 JCCs in North America will celebrate Tu B’Shvat through community solidarity Shabbat gatherings, the second in a series of movement-wide “Together We Shine Bright” solidarity Shabbatot.
However, this contrast between grief and sadness, the sun’s persistent shine, the birds chirping and the seasons changing, only deepens the pain for what was lost forever and the longing for those who are still in captivity, for 111 days in the darkness of evil.
In 1974, Dorit Tzamarat, a member of Kibbutz Beit Hashita, wrote this sad poem following the shock and heavy grief that gripped the kibbutz with the fall of 11 of its sons in the Yom Kippur War: (translated by Elli Sacks)
The fields spill out below, as far as earth meets sky,
Beneath the olive trees and Mount Gilboa.
At eve, the valley’s splendor hits your eye,
The likes of which you’ve never seen before.
It’s not the same old house now, it’s not the same old valley,
You’re gone and never can return again.
The path, the boulevard, a skyward eagle tarries…
And yet the wheat still grows again.
And from the bitter earth, the asphodels still bloom,
A boy upon the grass, next to his puppy lies.
The nights descend upon a well-lit room,
On those within, and thoughts locked up inside.
And everything that was, perhaps will ever be,
The rising and the setting of the sun…
And songs are always sung, but can they speak
The vastness of the loss and all the love.
It is the same old house now, yes it’s the same old valley,
But you — they never can return again.
And can it be, how can it be, that through Time’s endless tally…
Somehow the wheat still grows again.”
Together, united, we will overcome.
Leah Garber is a senior vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.