A Double Bill on Jan. 21: MLK Day and Tu B’Shevat

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By Jan Zauzmer

Google calendar kindly alerted me to an intriguing coincidence: This year, Martin Luther King Day and Tu B’Shevat fall on the same day.

Predictably, my inbox has filled with an array of thought-provoking articles on each of these holidays, some even within the same newsletter. But I have yet to come across one piece that loops in both.

Let’s do that. Like Thanksgivukkah on TBT, this Monday offers quite a double bill. It is not every day that we pay tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and zoom in on trees, one in the quest for a more just world and the other in pursuit of environmental justice.

Though we certainly don’t need any excuses to riff on the deterioration of American politics, today just so happens to supply not one but two occasions to fire us up.

Surely it is not hard to divine some larger meaning from this rare overlap of the towering civil rights leader’s birthday and the Jewish arbor day. While the former is tethered to the solar calendar and the latter is planted in the Hebrew lunar cycle, these concurrent celebrations of life and limb both call upon us to sow seeds for a brighter tomorrow.

At a time when the president and his enablers are to all appearances working overtime to damage and destabilize the national landscape, this fortuitous twofer provides an outstanding opportunity to redouble our efforts to combat problems in our midst.

To put it in Tu B’Shevat parlance, the current administration is chopping down our norms in a seeming rush to institutional and moral decay. In every field — immigration, education, climate change, healthcare, gun control, taxes, voting rights, international affairs, and so on, plus a government shutdown to boot — this crew digs deep to weaken the societal trunk, with utter disdain for the branches and leaves.

But they are barking up the wrong tree. We Americans do not fall easily. We hold fast to our ideals. Our democracy is rooted in values that will prevail over racism, avarice, and intolerance, if only we stand tall.

Freedom, equality, and justice for all — those are the principles that King preached so powerfully. They were elusive then and are lacking now. In the words of The King Center’s website, we are living in “a world that still desperately needs Dr. King’s voice and message.”

Many an orator has turned to trees to illuminate the path forward. Jewish sages of old taught, “If you are planting a tree and the messiah comes, finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah.”

Likewise, this motivational quote is often attributed to King: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” These proverbs are all about hope for a better world and the labor it takes to create that future.

That’s why Jews plant trees in Israel and beautify nearby parks with new saplings on Tu B’Shevat.

That’s why people of every faith and no faith collect, compose, compost, comfort, clean up, chip in, come through and contribute to community service projects in countless ways on Martin Luther King Day.

The takeaway as we mark MLK Day alongside Tu B’Shevat on Jan. 21? With King as our inspiration and trees as our imagery, we must stop the rot and nurture just causes. And in so doing, our endeavors will indeed bear fruit.

Jan Zauzmer is a freelance writer and a former area synagogue president.