The seeds of hope borne by the New Year for Trees
A thought for Tu Bishvat and Holocaust Memorial Day which fall this weekend
This year Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, Shevat 15, falls just one day before Holocaust Memorial Day.
There is a famous story in the Talmud about the sage Honi in which he asks why a certain man is planting carob trees because he will not see them mature and bear fruit. The man reminds us that we do not plant trees for ourselves, but for our descendants perhaps 70 years later.
The seeds we sow today may only truly mature and bear enduring fruit in 70 years’ time. But 70 years ago seeds were not being sown in the lands of Europe. On January 25 1940, the Nazis first considered Auschwitz as the site of a concentration camp. It was not seeds that were sown, but ash and human remains, which were buried and dispersed in mass graves.
We who live, 70 years later, have had that memory implanted in our psyche. As the generation of witnesses and survivors gradually dwindles, we see ever more clearly what it meant for Honi who slept for 70 years and, on waking, was not recognised by anyone. In 70 years it is not just one new generation that has passed, but two. The effects of devastation, human cruelty and evil still reverberate through our world.
The wounds will never heal, though the pain of their existence may be dulled. We are commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek, whose attack on the Israelites moments after they escaped slavery and crossed the Sea of Reeds, is described in the Torah portion that we read over the Shabbat of Tu Bishvat and before Holocaust Memorial Day.
Perhaps what this enigmatic command tells us is that the memory of Amalek can be deep-seated and almost invisible, forgotten in a sense. By blotting it out, I think that it is to be deliberately obscured in favour of a different way of self-understanding.
We must not allow victimhood to dominate our sense of identity: in blotting out, we promise never to forget and never to be defined by powerlessness and oppression. We are a people who believe in redemption and who believe in hope. Never wildly optimistic, but always unimaginably forward-looking to a future that will be better. That is what it means to be a Jew.
In a sense that is why I have always viewed Holocaust Memorial Day, with a slight apprehension. A day on which Jews, and let us not forget other minorities and non-Aryans, were liberated from Auschwitz by a world which perhaps could have done more.
What does it mean to be part of remembrance of a dark and desperate time by the idea of your own liberation by a foreign power? We do not define ourselves by our own victimhood nor can we allow ourselves to be defined by our victimhood and powerlessness. We also cannot allow ourselves to view the tremendum, the Churban, as a betrayal of the Enlightenment values which led us to believe we would never be treated in the way we were in the Shoah.
Rabbi Albert Friedlander, in his anthology of readings, Out of the Whirlwind, writes in the introduction: “As we turn to this dark period, we recognise that in confronting the worst, man has produced the best within himself. We look at the Age of Evil and we come to celebrate the vision of man’s goodness, the songs of the night that join together with the morning stars and sing of the crowning glory of God’s creation — the human soul.
“When Dante left the Inferno, he once more looked up at the stars. The stars have moved further away from the world since then. But, as we enter the inferno of the Holocaust, we know that it is a journey which we cannot avoid. We will look for the stars when we emerge.”
Some 70 years after the ashes of our ancestors were ploughed into the earth, new roots have once again taken hold. We have not been annihilated, in spite of the efforts of our enemies.
This Tu Bishvat we are reminded of Honi and his encounter with the man planting the carob trees for his descendants 70 years down the line. Our families, those who lived and those who died in the Shoah, set in motion Jewish life today.
The remnant of Israel has once again grown from the stump that was left decimated in the darkness of the long night. The stars referred to by Rabbi Friedlander have once again begun to emerge and we must ensure that they truly shine; the bright light of Jewish life, the dazzling sparkle of humanity.
Neil Janes is a rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John’s Wood. For more details of the LJS Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration, featuring the music and poetry of Viktor Ullmann, see www.ljs.org