Sowing Seeds of Hope

Sowing Seeds of Hope

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

This past week, we observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and a week ago, Tu B’shvat. International Holocaust Remembrance Day marked the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Years have passed but the indelible memories and hard lessons endure. The observance of Tu B’shvat, Jewish Arbor Day, as it’s often called, is a hopeful holiday. Observances include planting trees in Israel and at home, and eating Israeli fruits and produce.

The two dates, one of bitter loss and the other of inspiring hope, recall the Aggadic lesson taught by Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai (1st century CE), who used to say, “If you have a sapling in your hand and are told, ‘Look, the Messiah is here,’ you should first plant the sapling and then go out to welcome the Messiah.” Ask yourself, what you would have done? Would you have finished planting the tree or would you have left it to go greet the Messiah? The point of the lesson is about our hope for a better future for us and most certainly for our children. So we plant.

But, what about the Messiah? Can we turn our back on the Messiah? The hope for Messiah which had always been part of ancient Jewish thought was now integral to an emerging Christianity, too. Jews and Christians debated the hope for Messiah. The Talmud story, perhaps a polemic against Christian ideas about Messiah, affirms for Jews what they needed to know then and now. For Jews, Messiah would come for the first time under very different circumstances. Announced by the prophet Elijah, the Messiah would be a descendant of King David.

What’s more, in the 19th century, Reform Judaism set aside the notion of such a personal Messiah. Emerging from the Enlightenment, Reform Judaism embraced the possibility of a Messianic Age; it would be a time, not a person. Rather than a messianic figure, a messianic age would be built by all of us through mitzvot that transform our world into a place of justice and peace. Rather than wait for a Messiah, we would get on with the work of a better day. That’s why we finish planting and then greet the Messiah. Many false Messiahs have appeared before, even false Jewish Messiahs. So, our first obligation is to plant a real tree for a real future.  

Ever since, Jews have been planting trees, literally and figuratively. This Shabbat, when we rise for Kaddish, think about the men and women in history and those in our lifetimes who stood up and planted seeds and saplings for the cause of a better world; and think about those who perished in their pursuit of such aims. I’d like to believe that they planted for the same reasons we plant, too. “Never Again!” are words for our time and all times. Let’s translate these words into actions. Let’s sow seeds of hope for the future.


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