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Lively Overview of Tu B'Shvat

May 9, 2009 | by Avi Geller

The tree as a metaphor for personal growth.

Tom was about to collapse. Three days of trekking through the desolate desert had taken its toll: fatigued and parched from a thirst that only a barren stretch of wilderness could produce. The sun blazing overhead was making his head spin. His stomach constantly reminded him of how empty it was. How long had it been since he had partaken of a decent meal?

Just when he could barely take it anymore Tom noticed something looming ahead on the horizon. Could that really be a fruit tree? It must be a mirage he told himself. This hunger and thirst are going to my head!

But before giving up he made one last effort to reach his fruit tree. With his last ounce of strength he finally reached his goal. Tom couldn't believe his eyes! Under the luscious shade of the fruit-laden tree he found a cold spring and quenched his thirst. He then filled his stomach with the delicious fruit. Tom rested his weary body in the shade of the tree until his strength returned and he was able to continue his journey.

Before he took leave of his beloved tree, Tom felt the need to give it a blessing. Oh tree! Oh tree! How can I bless you? Should I bless you that your fruit be sweet? It is already so. Should I say your shade be pleasant? It is already so. That a cool spring flow under you? It is already so. Therefore I bless you that all future saplings that grow from you shall also be as pleasant as you. (based on Talmud - Ta'anit 5b)

The verse says: Because man is a tree of the field (Deut. 21:19). Further, King David expounds: The righteous are compared to the palm and cedar trees, with roots in the house of the Lord, continuously giving forth fruit (Psalms 92:13).

New Year of the Trees

The Jewish people celebrate a number of New Years (discussed at the beginning of Talmud Rosh Hashana). One of these new years is the 15th of Shvat, New Year of the Trees. The technical aspect of this refers to the laws of tithing the fruit and orlah (the prohibition of partaking of the trees fruit for the first three years). The demarcation of the new year is when the sap rises in the tree, which is approximately at this season.

The Tu B'Shvat celebration is quite simple. The custom is to eat some fruit and make the blessing Borah Pri Ha'Aitz (He has created the fruit of the tree). Some go a step further and make the blessing on a new fruit they haven't eaten yet this season, to make the She'hechiyanu blessing: Who has given me life and sustained me for another season.

It is also preferable to partake of fruit from the Land of Israel, or at least the seven species for which the land is praised: wheat, barley, grapes, olives, dates, figs, and pomegranates (Deut. 8:8). Some even try to eat 15 different kinds of fruit.

Significance of Tu B'Shvat

Why the big deal? Although Tu B'Shvat is a relatively minor holiday, it is still more that we do for the other new years mentioned in the Talmud (aside from Rosh Hashana when we blow the Shofar, etc.). So what is the deeper spiritual idea of Tu B'Shvat?

Jews throughout their exile, whether enduring freezing Siberian winters or basking in the warmth of sunny Florida, always kept the Land of Israel close to their heart and consciousness. Jews face Jerusalem for prayer three times a day. Each time we recite Grace After Meals we ask for the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

Also, Jews always celebrated the beginning of spring in the Holy land. Even if outside it is still winter and cold, deep within the tree the sap is rising and the process of creating a new fruit has begun. So too, we trust that God is preparing our redemption -- even though on the outer surface we still are in a bitter exile.

To Eat its Fruit

In the blessing we recite after eating any of the seven species, we thank God for the wide, good and desirable land that you inherited to our ancestors, to eat from its fruit and be satiated from its good. Does this mean that the entire purpose of living in Israel is all about Jaffa Oranges ?

The Talmud poses the question: Why did Moses so desire to enter the land? Was it the fruits that he wanted to eat? The Talmud answers that Moses desired to fulfill the mitzvot that can only be performed in the Land of Israel.

Whose land is it? One explanation is that we only posses the right to partake of the fruits of Israel, much the same way as one can sell his field or only the rights to plant his field, and afterwards it reverts to the original owner. The Land of Israel belongs to the Creator who gives us the right to eat its fruits, but don't forget He is the owner: The Land is Mine; you are aliens and dwellers with Me! (Leviticus 25:23)

This is also demonstrated by the one mitzvah that all college professors abide by, the Sabbatical year. Every seven years we refrain from any agricultural activity in the entire land. Similar to Shabbat that proclaims God's ownership of the world by not performing creative activity once a week, so we, too, proclaim God's exclusive ownership of the land by not planting or harvesting for an entire year.

Holiness of the Land

The Talmud says that the Holy Temple was destroyed for the sin of not reciting the blessing over the Torah. This seems to be a very minor transgression in light of the punishment received!

The commentator Bach explains that by reciting the blessing upon Torah study, we connect our study with the source of the Torah, the Almighty Himself. This causes the Divine Presence to descend into the land and the soil of Israel itself becomes sanctified. This is absorbed into its fruit, so that when one partakes of a fruit he inculcates holiness.

This relationship became lost when the Jewish people neglected to recite the blessing on the Torah, and considered Torah study as merely an intellectual pursuit. The Divine Presence departed and that was the cause of the destruction; not the actions of the Romans or Babylonians who milled flour that had already been ground -- i.e. the Jews had already caused the destruction on their own. Thus we can appreciate the spirituality that can come from the fruits of the land.

The Power of Growth

The practical lesson we derive from Tu B'Shvat is that a person is similar to a tree. (The development of the fetus in the womb is much like a plant). The kabbalists say there are four levels of life.

- Inanimate objects, such as soil and rocks
- Growing objects, i.e. the plant world
- Living objects, i.e. the animal kingdom
- Communicators, i.e. human beings

What is the difference between plants and animals? Plants spend their day vegetating -- i.e. absorbing nourishment from the ground (eating) and photosynthesizing (reproducing).

Animals are a higher form of life and have a brain to think with, and feet to go places. However, the thought process and mobilization of animals is geared toward seeking food and mates; so, in a sense, an animal can be likened to a walking, thinking plant! That is why their heads are on the same level as their bodies (please don't ask about giraffes!), since the entire purpose of their brains is to supply the body with its needs.

Human beings stand upright because they are supposed to think about higher issues than just their bodies (though we don't always succeed!).

A human being has aspects of all the levels. People have raw physical drives (plant), desires for comfortable lives (animal), intellectual capacity (human) -- plus a fifth spiritual level.

Trees continually grow from the seed, until they die. This comparison teaches us that a person must also keep growing lest he stagnate. This is especially true in Torah study and mitzvah performance.

Moses compares Torah to water: May my teachings flow like rain on the pasture (Deut. 32:22). What grows from the water of Torah? The person himself! A tree doesn't stop growing from the time the seed germinates until it dies. Therefore a tree exemplifies constant, steady growth. So too, must man keep on growing. The worst attitude is to kill another day. Killing time is suicide!

Our stay in this world is very limited and we must strive to accomplish the maximum. A certain great rabbi began publishing books at the age of 90 that became best-sellers in the Jewish world. Life begins at 90! Some of our greatest leaders both were well into advanced age as they held the Jewish people on their shoulders.

Living with vitality and accomplishment reflects the happiness associated with growth. As King David concludes in Psalm 92: The righteous will continue to bear fruit into old age with freshness and vitality. This testifies that our hope lies in the Eternal One.

When traveling on a train or bus, one may progress forward, but he cannot go up or down unless he is in the air. In university one makes progress and can learn much information, but in yeshiva one shteigs (goes up) as one's entire essence is elevated by the studies.

To Plant a Seed

Let's look at how a seed functions. When one plants a seed it first rots and then germinates, until eventually you get a blossom and fruit.

The atheist asked the sage: How can you believe in the resurrection of the dead? Can't you see that the body has totally decomposed? How can it ever come alive again? The sage replied that we plant the body of the deceased in the ground and the result will emerge at the final resurrection.

Rabbi Akiva compared Jews to fish that are trying to avoid the fisherman's net. So the fox invited the fish to join him on land. The fish replied: If we are in danger in the water, which is our life source, certainly removed from our life source we are kaput! So too, Torah is the life force of the Jew.

When one plants a seed in fertile soil and adds water, he must give it a chance to grow. If you remove the seed every day to check its progress, it made it will never grow. So too, we must connect ourselves to our roots, the Jewish people, take nourishment from our life-source, the Torah, and grow through accomplishment as individuals and as a nation. This is the lesson of Tu B'Shvat.

When eating Tu B'Shvat fruits, think of the Land of Israel and the connection of the Jewish people to the land. When making the blessing on the new fruit, thank the Almighty for life, and think of the power of growth in fruit, in Torah and in every person!

(based on a lecture by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe)

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