Roots are to a sense of self as air is to the body. Trees reach deep within their native earth to draw forth secrets, secrets that can’t be seen but nonetheless translate into the blossoms and leaves that we recognize as health and strength. So, too, for human beings, the roots of who we are ground us in a deep stability and nurture us with a unique richness. Just like the trees, our roots are essential to our flourishing.
Why? The process is not obvious to the naked eye. You must reach further, dig deeper, to appreciate how thoroughly things beneath the surface form a person. But the results of someone in touch with their roots can be seen very clearly. A healthily rooted man, like a well-rooted tree, exudes strength. Tempests of emotion do not knock him down. Storms of confusion do not uproot his identity and his core values.
Just as a tree draws forth unseen resources against all odds, so can the Jewish People tap into our roots for strengths that go beyond any wild winds the world throws at us. How do we access that strength, that deep, unseen nurturance in the midst of our stormy days? Tu B’Shvat leads the way.
The Golden Chord
Where you are going has a lot to do with where you come from. Because Judaism is matrilineal, our Jewish identity is bequeathed to us through our mothers. No matter how far a Jew strays, a spiritual umbilical cord runs like a golden thread throughout history nurturing her from the purest sources. Our ancient past, the spiritual marrow of our mothers and fathers, all the way back to Avraham (Abraham) and Sara, runs in our blood and lives on in our potential for greatness. Converts, spiritual sons and daughters of Avraham and Sara, bear the same noble heritage.
Learning about our ancestors provides us with role models, but not just role models for superficial, external behaviors. Of course they did amazing things, but how did they do them? How can we do them as well? We can delve into the commentaries and probe beyond the surface level of the text to discover the thinking processes and the emotional battles that were waged behind our patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ heroic actions.
Best of all, Torah is more than willing to admit to their mistakes, and that may be what nurtures us most of all. Just as we face mighty struggles, great winds threatening to tear us down, the greatest of our people faced their own struggles as well. The truths and perspectives that they drew upon to remain steadfast in their storms can root us firm and strong as well. In fact, whether we realize it or not, they already are.
In his famous book Strive For Truth, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler explains that the choices of the patriarchs and matriarchs created spiritual train tracks, if you will, train tracks that we can place ourselves on if we only try. The hardest work was theirs, the trailblazers. Now that the trail is there waiting, all that is left to us is to simply tap into our roots. The strengths of Avraham, Sara, and all our other great heroes are already inside of us, a spiritual heritage that can be accessed if we only make the effort.
Quietly, beneath the surface where nobody sees, sources of enormous strength pump life into the bows above. Trees draw greatness from deep, strong roots. So can we.
Secrets in Winter
Why do we celebrate Tu B’Shvat during the winter? We praise the rebirth of the green world when buds can barely yet be seen because it is precisely during this time of darkness, these seemingly unlikely moments, when the sap begins to run again deep within the trees’ living hearts.
The message is that it is not the external that defines us, not the external manifestation of strength that is worth celebrating. Torah guides us to look at the roots, the true beginnings, the sources of things – trees, phenomena, history, who we are as individuals and as a people. It is by tracing anything to its source that it is best understood. It is by probing deeper that you tap into a bigger picture, a more intimate and powerful knowledge of who you are, your potential, and your place in the world.
Most of all, the secret of Tu B’Shvat, the secret of the unseen, flowing sap, can be discovered at the deepest root of all: the Almighty. Where did we all truly begin? Where are we all truly going? By hanging on to the arc of eternity, the superficial tempests of life are put into perspective. When a person roots himself in his true Source, he becomes unshakable. She has a source of strength that never ends. The fact that the Almighty is our Source can inspire wonder and amazement, but more importantly, can drive us to discover the wonderful and amazing people that we can become.
Just as Tu B’Shvat, the Rosh HaShana of the Trees, is the day that brings each tree into judgment on high in terms of its potential for blossoming, for growth, so too must we judge ourselves during this cold winter time. It is not the lush autumn, the season of the High Holidays, Succos and blossoming. It is not the verdant spring, when Pesach inspires us all to flower and burst out of our narrow boundaries.