Martin Luther King’s Birthday and the Jewish “Birthday of the Trees”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Posted Jan 22, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Martin Luther King’s Birthday and the Jewish “Birthday of the Trees”

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Teachings for the Birthday of Martin Luther King and (in Jewish tradition) the Birthday of the Trees of the world (this year, coinciding on January 21):

Dr.  King’s most popular speech was, of course, “I Have a Dream,” spoken in August 1963. But his most profound was the speech he gave to an assemblage of the organization he helped to found, then called “Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam,”  on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was murdered, at Riverside Church in New York City.

The whole text of that speech, “Beyond Vietnam,”  is posted on our Website at –

What he said there was a prophetic warning to America. Almost thirty years later, his warning has come true in burning fire and blood. No celebration of his official Birthday today is really true to his whole life if it does not include opening the ears of our hearts to this warning. Here is the heart of it:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing Clergy- and Laymen-Concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

“In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military “advisors” in Venezuela.

“This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.

“It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

“Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken — the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

“If we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society.

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism..”

—- Dr. Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967

And for the midwinter full moon that Jewish tradition calls the New Year of the Trees and of the Tree of Life Itself, these four brief teachings can be woven into the four worlds of the Tu B’Shvat Seder at appropriate moments.

1. The world of Asiyah (Physicality):

The Tu B’Shvat seder itself, made up entirely of fruit and nuts and wine is a ceremonial meal that requires the death of no living creature. Trees give us nuts & fruit in such profusion that we can eat and eat without endangering the next generation. Even the Passover bitter herb requires yanking a radish up by the root.  So the Tu B’Shvat Seder is the meal of Eden, the Garden of Delight.  And it is the meal of the Song of Songs, Eden for grown-ups and for a grown-up human race. 

2.  The world of Yetzirah, Relationship:

In the year 1997, for Tu B’Shvat 300 Jews and people of other cultures and communities gathered in the redwood forests of northern California to challenge a corporation that was logging ancient redwoods, shattering the grandeur of groves that had been growing 1500 years and more—that were growing when Shammai and Hillel first debated the date of the new year of the trees. 

At the end of that Seder, we planned to walk onto ground that Maxxam Corporation had shattered in this way, and to plant redwood seedlings as an act of protest.  (Read the story of that moment at )

But first we sat nearby in a grove of ancient trees to share the Seder.  Above us towered trees that were more than 200 feet tall - the tallest living beings on the planet. Suddenly my friend, student, co-editor, and teacher (now Rabbi) Naomi Mara Hyman turned to me and said, “Imagine if those 200-foot-tall eytzim (trees) were the eytzim (wooden poles) of a Sefer Torah! - What a Sefer Torah it would be, how grand! —And we ourselves - we would each be just the right size to be a letter in that Sefer Torah!”

To which I would add this:  We are of course the living letters of a living Sefer Torah, the lovely spiraling earth in which those redwoods are the grand eytzim.

And in the Sefer Torah,  no letter stands alone. In Hebrew there is no word that can be written with a single letter. Not even “I” or “a,” as in English. We appear in clusters to make words, verses, books.  We live and breathe together.

If any one of us, or even a single corporation, pretends to stand apart, alone – the warmth of our lives becomes hyper-concentrated into a burning coal of furious heat. That alienated “I” inflames the sacred energy and light into a furious furnace. The sacred Sefer Torah burns to ashes. That is what the logger corporation was doing, and is why we must stand together, breathe together, to heal the Sefer Torah of our tradition and the Sefer Torah of our planet.

3. The world of Briyyah, creative intellect:

  Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman teaches:

When we count in Hebrew, we say that the letter “Yod” is 10, “Yod-aleph” is 11, Yod-bit is 12, and so on. But when we come to 15,  which should read as “Yod-hei,” we stop. Instead, we add 9+6 instead of 10+5, and we say “Tet-vov,” “Tu,” and so “Tu B’Shvat” for the joyful full moon, the 15th of the month of Shvat, and “Tu B’Av” for the joyful full moon, the 15th of the month of Av.

Why do we say “Tu” instead of “YH”? Because “YH,” or “Yah,” is one of the Names of God, as in “Hallelu-Yah,”  “Let us praise God!” So “Tu” is a mask for the Name of God, keeping God under cover. 

Do we need the mask? What would happen if we said “Yah B’Shvat”? What would it be like to see and say that on every full moon, “YH” is fully present?

4. The world of Atzilut, Spirit:

Gaze at the full moon. Yah is indeed fully present. Breathe: “Yahhhhhh,  YHWH, Yyyyhhhhwwwwhhhh,” is fully present. What the trees breathe out is what we breathe in. What we breathe out is what the trees breathe in. We breathe each other into life.  Breathe. Breathe.