Life Beneath the Surface
Tu Bishvat (15th day of Shvat, celebrated this year on February 4) is the Jewish new year for trees. It is often marked with joyous tunes, tree planting ceremonies (in Israel) and the consumption of fruit. Interestingly, Tu Bishvat is not a festival, as neither the Torah nor the Talmud make any mention of celebrating or observing this day. No commandments – a central component of any Jewish holiday – are recorded involving it. Nor are any special prayers in the liturgy. So if Tu Bishvat isn’t a festival, why do we celebrate it and what is its function? Looking exclusively at the Torah it would seem that the significance of Tu Bishvat is entirely limited to the realm of agriculture. “When you come to the Land and you plant any food tree, you shall surely block its fruit [from use]; it shall be blocked from you [from use] for three years, not to be eaten. In the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to God. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit; [do this, in order] to increase its produce for you. I am God, your God” (Deuteronomy 19:23-25).
These three verses form the basis of two commandments. The first is that of orlah – literally “blocked” or “closed” fruit. We are commanded not to derive any benefit from fruit that grows in the land of Israel during the first three years of a tree’s growth (or for the first three years after a tree is replanted). The second commandment is that of neta revai: All fruit from the tree’s fourth year can be eaten, however it may only be consumed by its owner in Jerusalem (unless it is redeemed – see Leviticus 27:34). From the fifth year and beyond the fruit can be eaten completely at the owner’s discretion, wherever and wherever he wishes.
Once Tu Bishvat arrives in the fourth year, the fruit is infused with the status of neta revai. Why is it that we look specifically to Tu Bishvat as the cutoff date? Our question becomes stronger when we realize that the month of Shvat actually marks winter’s midpoint.
How is it that we can identify a date in the heart of the winter in connection to commandments that are so intimately associated with harvesting? The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 14a) offers the following explanation as to why Bais Shammai (who argue with Bais Hillel by stating that the new year for trees is actually the first of Shvat) maintain their particular view.
“Although [once the first of Shvat arrives] the greater part of the winter cycle is still to come, yet since the greater part of the year’s rain has fallen (and the trees now begin to blossom), therefore we celebrate the new year for trees on the first of Shvat.”
When we look to identify a date as the cutoff point between one agricultural year and the next, we have to focus on the date by which the tree normally begins to blossom. Once it blossoms, its fruit belong to the New Year. It marks a new process of growth.
Though there is still much time left in the winter season, the beginnings of a spring can already be perceived today.
Such beginnings are enough to call this day the new year for trees.
The seasons in many ways parallel our lives. Concepts of growth and development, and, eventually, stagnation and decay, appear in both the vegetative and human realms. The Torah itself alludes to this when it compares us to trees.
Of all of the seasons, there is perhaps no greater disparity than exists between winter and spring. Winter represents stagnation and unrealized potential, when all signs of growth lie hidden. There are no external signs of development, no expressions of vitality.
All we see is an empty tree trunk; the fruit and leaves of last season have long since fallen away.
Spring, on the other hand, symbolizes burgeoning vitality. Everything is new and exciting. Trees that have remained dormant for the past few months start to show new signs of life.
Buds begin to sprout, flowers start to open. Nature once again reveals its true beauty. “For, behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing bird has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (Song of Songs 2:11-12).
This contrast is true in human life as well. Circumstances sometimes force us into our own personal “winter,” when struggles and challenges strip us of our innate vitality. There are other times in which we seemingly experience only joy and excitement in our lives, and everything points toward growth and accomplishment.
We must realize, however, that there are two distinct ways for a person to approach the winter-like situations in his own life. The aforementioned contrast between winter and spring is only true if one sees winter as the death-knell of summer. The beauty of the seasonal cycle, however, is that one can alternatively view winter as ushering in the upcoming spring. No matter what challenges a person faces, there are always better days awaiting him. Such a person knows no limitations, no dormancy. Life is a continuous cycle pointed in the direction of growth.
This is the message of Tu Bishvat. In the middle of the winter, when everything around us seems so cold and bleak, think of spring. Eat fruit. Sing joyous tunes. Plant new trees. Always look for the good.
But the message goes one step further.
Not only are we charged to maintain a continuously upbeat attitude regardless of our personal circumstances, we must also realize that those very circumstances are the ones that form the basis of our eventual success.
Though we might not have noticed it, most of the “rain” necessary for growth has already fallen. The basis for our success, namely the trials and challenges that we have had to overcome, is already in place. The only difference is that this foundation still lives in the realm of potential, hidden from the outside world. It takes the warmth of spring, literally and in our own lives, to allow that potential to blossom into its eventual reality.
Tu Bishvat provides us with many essential, real-life lessons. We celebrate it knowing that we will continue to weather the storm of life, no matter what that particular “season” has in store. This is because God, the Source of all blessing, is behind us, providing us with the means to succeed.
This post first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.