Roots and Branches: MLK Jr. Weekend, Tu B'shvat & Tikkun Olam

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We enter this winter month following record high temperatures in December, in the wake of the International agreement on Climate Change in Paris and intensifying attention to issues of economic and racial justice in our society.

It is very timely that two major programs this month include the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend at Mishkan Shalom and MLK Day, January 18. Reverend Mark Tyler, Pastor of Mother Bethel AME, the church choir will join us on Shabbat morning with the Mishkan choir and our Vav Class. I am personally delighted to welcome Reverend Tyler to our community, as we are co-chairs of the Clergy Caucus of POWER, of which Mishkan Shalom is an active member. Our school will devote its activities that Sunday morning to acts of tikkun olam- social justice and compassion for others and the earth. That Monday, January 18, we will join 46 other Philadelphia congregations for a major assembly of POWER as part of a re-,visioning and renewal process underway. If you have not participated in our work in POWER to date, now is the time.  The issues of full fair funding of our education system; challenging racial injustice and ending mass incarceration and economic dignity are front-and-center in our local as well as larger community.

These issues are part of additional tikkun olam initiatives, including the New Sanctuary Immigration Working Group, Ending Mass Incarceration Group, Interfaith Peace Walk, Interfaith Hospitality Network, and new membership in Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light, all led by our inspiring members, with Susan Saxe gratefully stepping in to chair our tikkun olam efforts in the year ahead. It is also an important Jewish value of our community that tikkun olam is an aspect of g’milut hadasdim - acts of caring- and not a separate value of activism in our world.

The elevated celebration of what was once a minor Jewish holiday Tu B’Sh’vat, the ancient Jewish New Year for the Trees is on Sunday evening, January 24 at 7:00 p.m. One of four historical “New Years” in the Jewish calendar - the 15th of the month of Sh’vat is a reminder for the need to honor the cycles of nature and the living trees that we inter-breathe with, reconnect with the earth we are extensions of and have impact on, and look at the Tree of Life as a guiding metaphor for relationship. This year’s Tu B’Sh’vat Seder will, once again, be led by Rabbi Yael and me, in a combined A Way In/Mishkan Shalom program.

The overall health and wellbeing of our ecosystem is fragile and resilient. Paying attention to the nurturing of the parts, while attending to the whole is one of the ecological messages of this holiday, both in terms of trees themselves and the sustenance they offer and need, and also in the macro-spiritual template of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Here the sephirot (or spheres of Divine energy) are only compatible and ultimately sustainable if the web of connective tissue, the “partzufim,” or face-to-face relational dynamics connect the spheres. Without this interdependent web of connectivity, the whole structure decays, withdraws and ceases to grow. As for the single tree, so for the forest; as for the individual, so for the community.

As members of Jewish community, our challenge is to discern how to embody all of these values in our personal and professional lives and in our communities. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan urged us to move beyond self-realization and the ongoing renewal of the Jewish People to see peaceful interdependence and Godly living as, what we would term today, our global responsibility. In this respect I suggest that the future of the Jewish people can only be found in a globally sustainable, evolving religious culture—interdependent and interconnected with healthy and conscious global systems—environmental, political, social, cultural, economic and spiritual. This is what I mean when I use the word “sustainable”, which is how the U.N. Brutland Commission defined it in 1987, with my addition of the religious or spiritual realm.

While there are a multitude of ongoing and situational concerns that ask for compassionate and committed acts of tikkun (repair) and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness) in our world, addressing the need for a spiritual, activist approach to sustainable living is a crucial issue for the Jewish people and for humanity in the 21st century to explore whether we are to have a global future that the Jewish people are part of!

We are hoping this year to re-energize our Sustainable Mishkan team. Please be in touch with Susan, Rabbi Yael or me if you want to get involved in adding a perspective to any and all programming we do in the building, and reclaiming an awareness and greater support for our own existing policies and programs.

I also want to welcome back our rabbinic intern, Julie Benioff from her fall studies in Israel. Julie will be leading services, family programs, working in our school, tikkun olam efforts, pastoral and other work beginning January  for this year and next. Julie is a welcome and important addition to our staff/clergy team. Thanks to a matching grant from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Julie will be with us ten hours a week this year.

We call our Torah Eytz Hayyim,” the life-giving tree. I look forward to commemorating and celebrating MLK Weekend and Tu B’S’hvat together with you in the month ahead, as well as continuing to plant and reap the bounty of what we are nurturing together in shared conscious community in all our moments of connection, prayer, study, activism and acts of caring.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit



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