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Happy Tu Bishvat and the power of fruitful metaphor

I am totally zonked. I was going to go to either a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day concert or a Tu Bishvat seder tonight, but I think I may do the unthinkable and go to sleep early instead. I'm a little bit tired after four wonderful days at LimmudNY.

In lieu of the seder and the concert, and to try to keep myself awake for a little while longer, I thought I would share some texts about the sheva minim (or shivat haminim), or the seven species, that are associated with the Land of Israel (and therefore Tu Bishvat, Shavuot, and Sukkot, among other holidays). (I shared some of these texts here, awhile back. ) I will then attempt to tie this, at least a little, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


“R. Hanina ben Pazzi said: Thorns need not be hoed nor sown—they sprout on their own, rise straight up, and grow. But wheat—how much pain, how much labor is needed before it can be made to grow!”
–Midrash Genesis Rabbah 45:4


א"ר חייא בר אבא הרואה חטים בחלום ראה שלום שנאמר (תהילים קמז) השם גבולך שלום חלב חטים ישביעך הרואה שעורים בחלום סרו עונותיו שנאמר (ישעיהו ו) וסר עונך וחטאתך תכופר אמר רבי זירא אנא לא סלקי מבבל לא"י עד דחזאי שערי בחלמא

“"When a person sees wheat in his dream, it is sign of peace, as it says: "He makes your borders peace; He gives you in plenty the fat of wheat" (Psalms 147:14). When a person sees barley in a dream, it is a sign that his iniquities are removed, for it is said, ‘Your iniquity is removed and your sin is expiated.’ (Isaiah 6:7). R. Zera said: I did not decide to go up from Babylonia to the Land of Israel until I saw barley in a dream.”
–Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 57a


רבי יוסי ברבי יהודה איש כפר הבבלי אומר: הלמד מן הקטנים, למה הוא דומה? לאוכל ענבים קהות, ושותה יין מגיתו; והלמד מן הזקנים, למה הוא דומה? לאוכל ענבים בשלות, ושותה יין ישן

“One who learns from the young, who is he like? Like one who eats dull [unripe] grapes and drinks wine from the wine- press. And one who learns from the elderly, who is he like? Like one who eats ripened grapes and drinks mature wine.”
– Ethics of the Fathers, 4:20


למה נמשלו דברי תורה כתאנה? מה תאנה זו כל זמן שאדם ממשמש בה מוצא בה תאנים אף דברי תורה כל זמן שאדם הוגה בהן מוצא בהן טעם

“Whenever you go to the fig tree, you are likely to find fruit to eat. Similarly, whenever you go to the Torah, you will find nourishment [lit. taste].”
–Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 54a-b


“‘Did the pomegranates blossom yet?’ [Song of Songs 7:13]—this refers to the young children who sit and learn Torah. They sit in rows like the seeds of the pomegranates.”
–Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah, 6:17


אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי למה נמשלו ישראל לזית לומר לך מה זית אין עליו נושרין לא בימות החמה ולא בימות הגשמים אף ישראל אין להם בטילה עולמית לא בעוה"ז ולא בעולם הבא

“Rabbi Yehoshuah Ben Levi said: ‘Why is Israel compared to an olive tree? Because just as the leaves of an olive tree do not fall off either in summer or winter. So too, the Jewish people shall not be cast off-- neither in this world nor in the World to Come.’”
–Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot 53b

“The Sages taught: ‘Just as olive oil brings light into the world, so do the people of Israel bring light into the world.’”
–Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah, 1:2


יג צַדִּיק, כַּתָּמָר יִפְרָח; כְּאֶרֶז בַּלְּבָנוֹן יִשְׂגֶּה. 13 The righteous shall flourish like the [date] palm-tree; he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
יד שְׁתוּלִים, בְּבֵית יְהוָה; בְּחַצְרוֹת אֱלֹהֵינוּ יַפְרִיחוּ. 14 Planted in the house of the LORD, they shall flourish in the courts of our God.
טו עוֹד, יְנוּבוּן בְּשֵׂיבָה; דְּשֵׁנִים וְרַעֲנַנִּים יִהְיוּ. 15 They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and richness;
טז לְהַגִּיד, כִּי-יָשָׁר יְהוָה; צוּרִי, וְלֹא-עלתה (עַוְלָתָה) בּוֹ. 16 To declare that the LORD is upright, my Rock, in whom there is no unrighteousness.

“No part of the date palm is wasted: The fruit is eaten, the embryonic branches [lulav] are used for the Four Species of Sukkot, the mature fronds can cover a sukkah, the fibers between the branches can make strong ropes, the leaves can be woven into mats and baskets, the trunks can be used for rafters. Similarly, no one is worthless in Israel: some are scholars, some do good deeds, and some work for social justice.”
–Midrash Numbers Rabbah, 3:1

* * * * *

Quite fittingly, since today is both Tu Bishvat and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Dr. King quoted the following passage from Micah in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
וְהָיָה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים, יִהְיֶה הַר בֵּית-יְהוָה נָכוֹן בְּרֹאשׁ הֶהָרִים, וְנִשָּׂא הוּא, מִגְּבָעוֹת; וְנָהֲרוּ עָלָיו, עַמִּים.
1 But in the end of days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow unto it.
ב וְהָלְכוּ גּוֹיִם רַבִּים, וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל-הַר-יְהוָה וְאֶל-בֵּית אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב, וְיוֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו, וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו: כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה, וּדְבַר-יְהוָה מִירוּשָׁלִָם. 2 And many nations shall go and say: 'Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths'; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
ג וְשָׁפַט, בֵּין עַמִּים רַבִּים, וְהוֹכִיחַ לְגוֹיִם עֲצֻמִים, עַד-רָחוֹק; וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבֹתֵיהֶם לְאִתִּים, וַחֲנִיתֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת--לֹא-יִשְׂאוּ גּוֹי אֶל-גּוֹי חֶרֶב, וְלֹא-יִלְמְדוּן עוֹד מִלְחָמָה. 3 And He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide concerning mighty nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
ד וְיָשְׁבוּ, אִישׁ תַּחַת גַּפְנוֹ וְתַחַת תְּאֵנָתוֹ--וְאֵין מַחֲרִיד: כִּי-פִי יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, דִּבֵּר. 4 But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken.
It appears in the middle of his speech, in the following context, and is joined together with a verse from Isaiah:
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. I still believe that we shall overcome!
In Keith D. Miller's Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Its Sources, he discusses how, as part of his homiletic style, Dr. King effectively yoked together separate biblical prophecies of redemption to create new images that flow naturally. I had to do several searches before I was satisfied that "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid" does not appear anywhere, because it sounded so right to me.

This was a common formulation of Dr. King's. He also used it in a beautiful, moving sermon he delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City, on April 30, 1967, titled "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam":
Now it isn't easy to stand up for truth and for justice. Sometimes it means being frustrated. When you tell the truth and take a stand, sometimes it means that you will walk the streets with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means losing a job...means being abused and scorned. It may mean having a seven, eight year old child asking a daddy, "Why do you have to go to jail so much?"....We shall overcome because the bible is right: "You shall reap what you sow." With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid because the words of the Lord have spoken it. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we're free at last!" With this faith, we'll sing it as we're getting ready to sing it now. Men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore. And I don't know about you, I ain't gonna study war no more.
Please go and read the whole thing. It's lovely and I don't do it justice by only quoting an excerpt.

Here's another one I simply can't resist sharing. It's from a speech called "The American Dream" that Dr. King delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta, GA, on July 4, 1965, and, again, you should read the whole thing:
We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream.

About two years ago now....I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare; I’ve seen it shattered. I saw it shattered one night on Highway 80 in Alabama when Mrs. Viola Liuzzo was shot down. I had a nightmare and saw my dream shattered one night in Marion, Alabama, when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot down. I saw my dream shattered one night in Selma when Reverend Reeb was clubbed to the ground by a vicious racist and later died. And oh, I continue to see it shattered as I walk through the Harlems of our nation and see sometimes ten and fifteen Negroes trying to live in one or two rooms. I’ve been down to the Delta of Mississippi since then, and I’ve seen my dream shattered as I met hundreds of people who didn’t earn more than six or seven hundred dollars a week. I’ve seen my dream shattered as I’ve walked the streets of Chicago and seen Negroes, young men and women, with a sense of utter hopelessness because they can’t find any jobs. And they see life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. And not only Negroes at this point. I’ve seen my dream shattered because I’ve been through Appalachia, and I’ve seen my white brothers along with Negroes living in poverty. And I’m concerned about white poverty as much as I’m concerned about Negro poverty.

So yes, the dream has been shattered, and I have had my nightmarish experiences, but I tell you this morning once more that I haven’t lost the faith. I still have a dream that one day all of God’s children will have food and clothing and material well-being for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, and freedom for their spirits.

I still have a dream this morning: one day all of God’s black children will be respected like his white children.

I still have a dream this morning that one day the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.

I still have a dream this morning that one day all men everywhere will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.

I still have a dream this morning that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill will be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

I still have a dream this morning that truth will reign supreme and all of God’s children will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. And when this day comes the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

This constructed verse also appears in speeches reproduced here ("Where Do We Go From Here?" 1967) and here ("A Christmas Sermon on Peace," 1967, delivered only a few months before his death) and, I am sure, in other places as well.

Musing about figs and grapes and Dr. Martin Luther King brought two thoughts to mind.

The first is about the power of words and, in particular, of imagery. Both in these three speeches, and in the quotes I shared above, metaphor and analogy are used in very strong ways. Sometimes I get tired of empty, fake, powerless words, and I fall into a slight funk, thinking that all words ultimately lack power and substance. As someone whose favorite activities revolve around words, this is disheartening. But when I read these words from the Midrash or from Dr. King, I remember that words have tremendous power--first to make us feel, and then to make us act.

The second thought I had was: Where are these leaders today? Where are the people who loudly proclaim that "no one is worthless in Israel" and that "one day all men everywhere will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth"? At the LimmudNY conference (about which I should certainly write more another time), while studying the words of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits with Rahel Berkovits (made me want to learn and read a lot more) and seeing a documentary about Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (as well as personal stories about him from one of his shamashim), I felt sad that the Modern Orthodox community does not have leaders who come anywhere close to these men in intellectual achievements, creative thought, or personal righteousness. Of course none of these men were perfect. And, of course it's sad that there have been so few women who have fulfilled this kind of role. But I feel like we have no one today--nobody in public American life and nobody in Modern Orthodox Jewish life--who comes close to these men in using their words and power so wisely.

Happy Tu Bishvat and thank you, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!

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There seems to be a mistake in that quote about earning six or seven hundred dollars a week. That would have been a very high salary in 1965. Even six or seven hundred dollars a month was definitely middle class, about what a starting assistant professor would earn. I think it should be six or seven hundred dollars a year, which would have been a very low, but not absurdly low, poverty-level income in 1965. The standard deduction for federal income tax was $600 then.

I've probably told you this before, at least once, but I was living in the Washington area in August 1963 when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech at the March on Washington. I wanted to go hear him, but my father was afraid there would be violence (after all, he made his living studying violence and its effects on society), and wouldn't let me. It would have been very cool, later in my life, if I could have told people that I had been there and heard that speech live, but I can't really blame my father, since, at the time, it wasn't so unreasonable to think there might be violence.

If it's any comfort, people in the 1960s also used to complain that there were no more great speakers like there were in the past. I remember reading some opinion column which pointed out that politicians like Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson, wrote all their own speeches, while nowadays politicians like JFK used slick speechwriters to write speeches for them, which didn't really come from the heart.
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