Tu Bishvat: Sowing the Seeds of Peace

I was told on more than one occasion growing up that Tu Bishvat was “the Jewish Earth Day” and “a Jewish Hippie Holiday.” I was therefore surprised to learn years later that Tu Bishvat actually had some of its roots in war. One of the major tannaitic sources for this beautiful celebration comes from Deuteronomy 20:19–20, which reads:

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced. (JPS)

In other words, fruit-bearing trees were so valuable as a food source that they could not be cut down and used for other purposes, such as building siege ladders and bulwarks. Despite the horrors of war, something had to be left unscathed and preserved in its natural state.

What do we learn from this? Namely, if we do not rebuild the places and people that are devastated and humiliated by war and remold them into sanctuaries of perpetual peace, then all we are doing is setting the stage for the next conflict. By not spreading the seeds of peace, we are planting the seeds of the next war. If we simply defeat our enemies and walk away, it is a sure-fire guarantee that our sons and daughters will be back a generation later once again fighting the children of our enemies. The absence of war is not truly peace.

I currently serve as the student rabbi for United Hebrew Congregation in Terre Haute, Indiana. One of my congregants is Walter Sommers. As a child in 1920s Germany, Walter never experienced antisemitism or even knew what it was. But when Hitler came to power in 1933, everything changed. As a teenager, he saw his synagogue in Frankfurt burned on Kristallnacht. He and his parents were extremely lucky to be able to flee to the United States in 1939. He joined the US Army and fought in the Battles of Guam, Leyte, and Okinawa during World War II. Now he volunteers at the local Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute. One day we got to talking.

“Do you know why Germany sued for peace in 1918?” he asked.

“Why?” I replied.

“Because they ran out of food back in Germany. But the German armies in France and Belgium never surrendered. The Allies never reached German soil. In fact, they marched back to the Fatherland in perfect step carrying all their weapons with their heads held high. The German people still had their pride and greeted the soldiers as heroes, adorning them with flowers. But then came the Treaty of Versailles. It was so crushing and humiliating. If it had not been for Versailles, Hitler would never have come to power. But fortunately, the US got it right after World War II and gave Europe the Marshall Plan which allowed them to rebuild and have some dignity. That was the best thing that could have happened.”

Walter’s story reminded me of a powerful film that had quite an impact on me. I will never forget the end of Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Congressman Wilson bemoaned the fact that he was able to secure the funding and resources necessary to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan but not the means to rebuild that devastated country. (Out of the devestation rose the Taliban who offered sanctuary to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.) He quipped: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world … and then we [messed] up the endgame.”

Some may see “winning the peace” as something too hard to accomplish or too hard to even fathom, but I am blessed to know a woman who has shown that it is well within all our grasps. I met my friend Emily Miller in 2007 while on a training mission to Brazil. I was a Army ROTC cadet and Emily was a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point. After graduating from West Point in 2008, Emily quickly completed the Engineer Basic Officer Leader Course and was the first graduate from her class at West Point to deploy to Iraq. After returning from Iraq, she volunteered for the Cultural Support Team mission, a program which embedded female soldiers with elite units such as the 75th Ranger Regiment, Navy SEALS, and Green Berets. Emily was one of the first women officially in front-line combat in US Army history. Her job was to protect native Afghan women and children during special operations raids. Emily was badly injured during a joint US-Afghan training mission and medically evacuated to the United States. Attesting to her character, Emily voluntarily returned to Afghanistan for a second tour shortly after surgery and rehabilitation. Coming home after this second Afghan tour, she left the Army and entered the Harvard Business School.

At this point, one could have easily said that Emily had more than done her fair share for the Army, our country, and the people of Afghanistan. But Emily’s commitment to helping the people of Afghanistan had not ended. She, along with several other veterans and Harvard Business School alumni, started a company called Rumi Spice, which is involved in the cultivation of saffron. Saffron is one of the world’s most expensive spices, costing more per ounce than gold. Afghanistan’s soil and terrain are ideal for growing this commodity. Bringing saffron production to Afghanistan is vital to that country’s future. Why?

Since 1992, Afghanistan has been the world’s largest producer of opium poppy, 90% of which is used to produce heroin. Not only has this illicit crop has been used by terrorist organizations such as the Taliban and Haqqani networks to fund their insurgencies, but at least 4.6 million Afghans are currently addicted to heroin. Amazingly, despite the worldwide demand for heroin, saffron is still more profitable for growers than poppy. Many Afghan farmers were either forced at gunpoint to grow poppy or had no alternative, as traditional crops brought in little revenue to feed their families. Saffron offers the possibility of prosperity without bloodshed.

Another truly remarkable aspect of Emily’s company is that it employs several dozen Afghan women who would otherwise be jobless. Many of the male farmers, who were at first weary of working for a company run by American women, have come to warmly embrace them.

My friend Emily has fought for the people of Afghanistan in both war and peace.

On this Erev Tu Bishvat, let us remember the middah and mitzvah of tikkun olam. We have a sacred responsibility as Americans to ensure that evil, whether it be in the form of the government of a rogue state, a terrorist organization, or a transnational criminal syndicate, is completely destroyed. With this comes the additional responsibility of rebuilding and revitalizing the lands that were ruthlessly occupied and giving hope and a bright future to the people that were oppressed, enslaved, and tormented. This is our call and our duty as Americans.

Aaron A. Rozovsky is is a fourth-year rabbinical student on the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR, where his Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship placement is at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education.

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