Tu B'Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, falls in mid-winter of the Jewish year.
At first glance, this timing seems out of place. Frost and wind have stripped the trees of their leaves; we see no sign of the buds and blossoms which are the precursors of summer fruits. The only deciduous tree showing signs of life is the almond. Indeed, the almond’s Hebrew name, shakeid , alludes to the verb lishkod, meaning “to persist diligently.”
Should we venture out on Tu Bishvat to survey the dormant orchards, we find that all but the almond trees are now bare skeletons, with neither leaf nor so much as a bud to clothe them.
Why, then, does Judaism designate this as the season to celebrate the renewal of the tree’s yearly cycle?
Apparently, there is more significance to the timing of Tu Bishvat than meets the eye at first glance. A deeper examination of the message of this New Year of the Trees reveals that a powerful message lies hidden among the tree’s now-barren branches. What is more, a better understanding of what is involved will provide a breath of hope and encouragement not only for our leafy friends, but for all Mankind as well.
What is a tree? Let us look more closely. It stands there stoically, year after year, tall, and inspiring. Rooted to the spot, it cannot move from place to place. To all purposes, it appears to be a fixture of the landscape, frozen in time. Were we able to question the tree about its life experience, we anticipate a rather monotonous report of a repetitious cycle, orderly, regular, and reliable – even to the point of boredom. Each year, the same four seasons come and go, but the tree remains stationary. Rain or shine, sleet, storm or balmy sunshine, there it stands, mutely rooted to the spot, resigned to watching nature repeat itself.
When the long life of the tree has run its span, and the time has come to cut it down, the stump of the tree will reveal its secrets. There we will find a series of rings which reveals the exact age of the tree: one ring for each year.
What is more, the nature of each ring discloses whether the corresponding year was marked by draught or blessed with abundant rain. An ample supply of water produces an annual ring that is thicker and lighter in color. In contrast, a year of drought brings with it a dark, narrow, sharply defined circle of growth.
As we view these rings, we perceive that the tree was not oblivious to its surroundings over the years. Now that we have a glimpse of its inner workings, we clearly observe that the tree was in fact responsive to its environment, albeit, not outwardly, in manner which we could observe. The variations in its growth rings reveal clearly how the tree reacted to the vicissitudes of the drier years, and to the abundance of the seasons that were blessed with plenty. Its reactions found expression in its rate of growth over each cycle. Some years saw enhanced growth, the drier years produced less, but each time another cycle was completed, the tree gained new branches, leaves, and height, and its trunk thickened imperceptibly.
So, too, does Man grow with each new year-cycle. Outwardly, it may be difficult to observe any signs of change, but man does absorb his surroundings and respond to them. Hopefully, the change is positive, but inevitably, the turning of the wheels of time effects a change, at least within.
"Like a Donkey to His Burden"
To understand the comparison more clearly, consider the following parable:
A student approached his rebbe, frustrated and downtrodden. "Rebbe, Rebbe," he cried. "I pray three times a day, I recite blessings each time I eat; I observe the Shabbos (Sabbath), and study Torah regularly. Even so, I feel stagnated. I am not elevated to new heights, but remain just as I was yesterday, and last week, and a year ago. Why do I not experience spiritual growth? Why am I not inspired?”
The rebbe had a ready answer:
"The Talmud tells us that man must serve his Maker 'as an ox (bears) his yoke and a donkey his burden'. Do you know what that means?"
"No, Rebbe," admitted his student, his curiosity piqued.
“Then let me explain,” answered the older man.
"Ruben was a farmer who owed beautiful fields, the finest for miles around. He eagerly plowed the soil, planted his seed, and then dug irrigation channels between the furrows. When all was ready, he drove his donkey to the stream that ran along the edge of his fields. There Ruben hitched the beast to the axle of the water wheel and set him in motion. The donkey circled round, and water began to pour into the irrigation channels. As the flow increased, Ruben watched the stream of precious liquid spread across the fields to nourish the sprouting seeds, and let out a sigh of satisfaction. Now his crops could grow and mature. Water would bring them to life and growth.
The next day, the scene repeated itself. The donkey circled round again and again, in an endless track leading to nowhere. The sun beat upon his back, and made life difficult as he strained at the ropes. Each day, the same routine was repeated. The donkey had no idea of what his efforts accomplished. To him, the daily drudge was an endless path to nowhere. His efforts led to nowhere and served no purpose.
One day, the donkey decided he had had enough of this purposely grind. Why continue to go round and round in circles only to return to the same starting point once again? He envied the produce in the field which shot up, and grew taller and thicker each day. Soon the green stalks sprouted hairy heads and bore rich grains, but the donkey’s life was unchanged; it seemed to produce nothing but hard work, boredom, and despair.
Why carry on? The day came when the donkey refused to work anymore.
The donkey failed to make the connection between his efforts and the rich, green growth in the fields his toil helped to water. Had he but realized how much his sweat and toil accomplished.
“Had the beast been able to grasp what his efforts accomplished, he would have broken into a run as he turned the axle and brought fresh water to the crops,” concluded the rebbe.
The principle of continued growth applies to ourselves just as surely as it applies to barren, leafless trees in the midst of a harsh winter. Not a single year, goes by without another ring appearing in the trunk of a tree, no matter how dry and difficult it might prove to be.
Similarly, not a single year goes by without a Jew growing in Torah and mitzvoth.
Many live with an unspoken sense of numbness and despair about their spiritual growth and development. Such individuals lack the satisfaction of experiencing growth and progress. A sense of “going nowhere” and stagnating in the same place for years and years overwhelms them.
The solution lies in the realization that each year, we experience the seasons of our life with a wider perspective and deeper understanding which “water” the hidden seeds of potential.
The Talmud states that even the shallowest Jewish soul is full of mitzvoth, just as a pomegranate is full of seeds. Compared to an apple or pear, the pomegranate is packed with far more seeds. Also, its outer peel is tougher than that of other fruits. However, once the peel is removed, we find hundreds of seeds, each a potential tree in itself.
While these seeds were growing and developing inside the fruit, there was no external change to indicate when they reached maturity. It is only after the pomegranate has been picked and opened up that we perceive that the seeds are indeed fully ripe and ready to produce new plants of their kind.
Throughout the winter, the tree appears lifeless and frozen. In actual fact, much is happening which is hidden from the eye. A major internal renewal is taking place, unseen, undocumented, but real nonetheless. It is during the seemingly “dormant” stage that the tree regenerates, regains the vigor needed to re-clothe itself in fresh green leaves, then to bud, flower, and produce another season of fruits. Now, in the seemingly lifeless winter, the tree gathers the resources to renew its life by lengthening its branches, stretching to new heights and drawing even closer to Heaven.
Planted Deep Within
It is not by chance that the holiday of the trees falls in mid-winter, when storms still blow and frost still coats the branches. On the contrary, Tu Bishvat, in the midst of winter, has a message to convey to us: "For Man is like the tree of the field" (Deuteronomy 20:19).
The process of rebirth within the trees, which we celebrate on Tu Bishvat, replicates the cycle of renewal that takes place within man himself.
Our own wintry seasons may leave us feeling barren; we would do well to recall that it is in winter but it is in winter that we renew the resources needed in order to bear summer fruits, whether we are conscious of the process or not.
We need not despair at the apparent barren stagnancy of winter. As the cycles of our lives pass, Tu B'Shvat can help us recall that there are times when growth takes place very quietly; it is an internal process, sheltered and protected within, while hidden from the eye.
Take heart – our labor is not in vain! The passing years see us mature, gain insight and gather mitzvoth. We pray for growth as we nurture the vast potential our Creator has planted deep within us. Let us learn from the tree, always reaching outward and upward to new heights.