By Rabbi Brent Gutmann
This week, we have been celebrating the New Year of the trees, Tu Bishvat. So too, in last week’s Torah portion we read, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you…” (Exodus 12:2) The beginning of tractate Rosh Hashanah of the Babylonian Talmud among other sources lists both of these dates, the 15th of Shvat and the 1st of Nissan as two of the four different new years (the others being Rosh Hashanah and the 1st of Elul for the birthing of lambs), and some might point to yet others in Jewish tradition or that we just began the new year of 2024 on the Gregorian calendar at the start of this month. With so much discourse on how we mark our beginnings, one is naturally prompted to ask why? Conceivably, these new years have different purposes, whether tied to harvest or the anniversary of some historical event, all are markers in time that help to align and orient our collective efforts.
Yale Biblical Theologian, Brevard S. Childs remarked that the Torah’s stipulation on marking a new year of the calendar represent “a new beginning of life for Israel.” (Brevis. The Book of Exodus. 1974.) In their liberation and distinction in Torah, the world was radically changed for this Israelites. The possibility that October 7, 2023 represents a similar shift in Jewish perspective on the world bears notice in reflection on how we mark time.
Only those alive today who can recall the Holocaust, or feeling of precariousness surrounding Israel’s existence pre 1967, would be able to recall a time where Jews felt similarly vulnerable. Add to this that many Jews who viewed Israel as a shelter of last resort for Jews facing antisemitic persecution in intervening decades have been given fresh reason to question that assumption. So too, disregard in the international community of Jewish suffering, in particular as was experienced in the form of burning civilians, mutilation, and sexual violence against women, t evokes many of our worst fears from prior centuries, and so, as we mark time, we will surely mark yet another halting anniversary.
As we mark time, we are helped to remember and edify our commitments. While we will have an additional month on the Hebrew calendar this year pushing the spring holidays out further, holidays such as Purim (commemorating the thwarting of Haman’s own genocidal plan) and Passover (marking our liberation to pursue a just and peaceful world) are sure to take on new meaning.
October 7th has reminded us of the presence of evil in our world, and the dangers that are possible should our vigilance lapse. So too, Tu Bishvat has reminded us of our collective responsibility to our planet and environment. Perhaps we need these new beginnings strategically spread throughout our year most of all, because one does not suffice to maintain our focus? So too, they are a reminder of the intransigent nature of challenge. Or in other words, we might remember the wisdom from the Mishna of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” (Avot 2:16)
Brent Gutmann is senior rabbi of Temple Beth Zion.