By Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman
The following story is often told on Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for the Trees:
One day Honi the Circle Maker was journeying on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
The man replied, “Seventy years.”
Honi continued, “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?”
The man replied, “I found already grown carob trees in the world. As my ancestors planted for me, so too do I plant for my children.” (Ta’anit 23a:15-16)
As we celebrate the trees, along with the natural world that sustains us, the Talmud’s message is clear: Jewish values demand that we protect our earth not only for ourselves but for future generations. As we examine the crises of our current society and imagine a future where all people can enjoy safety and abundance, we obligate ourselves to work towards racial and economic justice, fight for policies that will slow climate change, and provide healthcare for all. And at this precarious time in our nation, we especially remember the importance of strengthening democracy and fighting white supremacy.
Another story from the Talmud explains how Honi got his name as a circle maker. While we often do not retell this story on Tu B’Shevat, it offers us an additional perspective as we commit ourselves to creating a more just society.
It had not rained for many days, and the people turned to Honi. They implored him, “Pray that rain should fall.” Honi prayed, but no rain fell.
What did he do? He drew a circle, stepped inside it, and spoke to God: “Master of the Universe! Your children have turned to me because I am like a member of Your household. Therefore, I take an oath and swear by Your great name that I will not move from here until You have compassion on Your children. Answer their prayers for rain!”
Rain began to trickle down, but only in small droplets. Honi said, “This is not what I asked for. I want the rain to fill the cisterns, ditches, and caves with enough water to last the entire year.”
Then the rain began to fall furiously. Honi, standing in his circle, challenged God again: “I did not ask for this damaging rain either! I ask for rain of goodwill, blessing, and generosity.” A proper rain then began to fall.
Honi is a man with chutzpah. He stands in his little circle and demands that God give the people rain so that their crops will grow and their basic needs will be met. Honi did not despair or lose hope. If Honi has the temerity to demand that God provides proper rain, so too should we have the temerity to demand that our elected officials create policies that serve the entire nation and not just the rich, protect the vulnerable, and ensure that all people enjoy safety and abundance. While we may be relieved to have a new president, there is much work to be done. Justice will emerge only if we demand it.
As the National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, so brilliantly recited:
We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised, but whole; benevolent, but bold; fierce and free. We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation, because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens. But one thing is certain, if we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright. (“The Hill We Climb,” given at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris)
On this Tu B’Shevat, let us plant the seeds of change so that our children will inherit a country that is whole, bold, and free.
Laurie Zimmerman is the Rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Shamayim.