We arrived home in Jerusalem on the Wednesday afternoon, just before a snowstorm shut down the city, reminding us of the pristine beauty of one of nature’s wonders; pure, cold and white. My wife, Debbie, and I had just been in the United States, welcoming another wonder: our new grandson, Eliyahu Gavriel.
This coming Shabbat we celebrate one of our minor festivals, Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor Day), which is named for the date it takes place on, the 15th of Shvat. Nowadays, we observe Tu Bishvat by planting trees (before or after the date this year, because of Shabbat) and eating fruit. However, the 15th of Shvat also has a deeper meaning; it is a wondrous time, full of potential, with a message for all of us and an intrinsic connection to the cycle of life.
Tu Bishvat’s legal significance is agricultural, being identified in the first mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah as the New Year for trees. We mark the date as the cutoff from one year to the next in designating the tithes on produce grown in the Land of Israel that the Torah prescribes as gifts for the priests, Levites, and the poor, based on a seven-year cycle. As Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z’l, the great devisor of Jewish law from the previous generation, explained, the importance of having a cutoff is to impress upon us the obligatory nature of the tithe. The “gift” that one gives is what permits us to enjoy the produce.
Celebrating Tu Bishvat expanded to more than its biblical aspect in the medieval period, when the practice of eating fruit, specifically from among the seven species indigenous to Israel, became a means for Diaspora Jews to connect to their homeland. Unable to fulfill the commandment of settling the land, they were able to partake of its symbolic produce. During this time, the Kabbalists in Safed instituted a “Tu Bishvat Seder” complete with mystical teachings and a service parallel to Passover, including four cups of wine.
What remains consistent from the Bible to today is that the central symbol for Tu Bishvat is the tree. In our tradition, we have the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. The thorn bush that G-d appeared to Moses from within is identified by the commentator Rashi, as a tree. And our Torah is identified as an “etz haim”, another Tree of Life. However, there is a further, deep connection of all of us to trees.
Verse 19 in Deuteronomy Chapter 20, deals with laying siege to a city during a war and proscribes against cutting down trees. The end of the verse is rather cryptic, but the simple meaning seems to be that people are compared to trees. One commentator then expands the metaphor to explain that just as a tree bears fruit, so too the actions and deeds of a human being are his or her fruit.
Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum, in his book, “Power Lines: Insights and Reflections on the Jewish Holidays,” takes the comparison of people to trees and ties it back to a powerful insight for Tu Bishvat. “The tree goes through cycles in its life. The heavy-laden tree of summer empties itself of fruit in the autumn, and then slowly loses its leaves, one by one. By winter time, the tree stands shorn of its previous glory. For all purposes, it appears to have died.”
“But then comes Tu Bishvat! In the midst of the cold winter days, when all vegetation seems frozen or dead, the sap of the tree starts to flow beneath the surface bark. Rising slowly from roots buried in the hardened soil, the sap pushes its way up, pumping new life into outstretched branches that reach towards the heavens.”
This is the message of Tu Bishvat: there is a cycle of decay, renewal, birth, and growth that we human beings share with nature, specifically trees, over the course of our lifetimes.
Rabbi Nisenbaum continues, “Even when we feel lethargic, in a rut, and seem to have lost the drive to achieve, we must not despair. Just as winter is an annual hiatus in the life cycle of trees, so bouts of lethargy and unproductivity are necessary phases in the human cycle. Just as with the coming of spring, life-giving sap moves imperceptibly through the trees to branches stretching to the sky, so we too will have renewed energy from deep within our spiritual reservoirs, so long as we set our goal heavenward.”
May we all take the opportunity that this Tu Bishvat presents, to direct our lives from our personal winters to springs, bearing the beautiful fruit that realizes our best potential.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.