Happy New Year, Trees
You may remember receiving a little baggie of raisins and dates when you were younger, and being told, “Today is the new year for the trees,” while you pretended to understand what exactly that meant.
I remember my school setting up baskets of dried fruits on tables in an empty classroom. An older student would sit behind each table and we’d get paper money to go around and buy fruits. Then we’d sing a few songs and collect real money to plant trees in Israel. That was Tu b’Shevat.
Surely there must be something more to this holiday than just eating dried fruits and collecting money to plant trees? (This year the holiday occurs on January 26.)
The source for this holiday is found in the opening statement of the Talmudic tractate, Rosh HaShanah. Hillel established the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat as the New Year for trees.
But what does that mean, the New Year for trees? Do all the maples and oaks make resolutions? Of course not.
Simply, Tu b’Shevat is the day when trees stop absorbing water from the ground and instead draw nourishment from their sap. In Jewish law, it means fruit that grew prior to the 15th of Shevat could not be counted among the fruit that grew after that date; the latter fruit was tithed. A tithe was one-tenth of your annual produce or income given to the Levites, Kohanim or poor people.
So how does that relate to us now, in the 21st century, when we’re no longer giving fruit as a tithe? What can we learn from this unusual celebration?
The Torah compares human beings to a tree in various places:
“A person is like the tree of a field...” (Deut. 20:19)
“For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people.” (Isaiah 65:22)
“He will be like a tree planted near water...” (Jeremiah 17:8)
What’s the connection?
The Talmud explains:
A person whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds is likened to a tree whose branches are numerous, but whose roots are few. The wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down.
But a person whose good deeds exceed his wisdom is likened to a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous. Even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place. (Avot 3:22)
One can be surrounded by many branches of, say, fancy cars and electronic gadgets, but without a strong connection to one’s community, family and heritage — without strength, hope or faith — one will be powerless against life’s challenges. Similarly, a tree with weak roots cannot withstand strong winds and will quickly fall.
However, a person connected to his or her community and heritage, a reliable safety net to catch falls, will feel less vulnerable to the deceit of materialistic items and will not fall prey to false satisfactions. He or she will not budge, like a tree with deep roots that will barely sway against a strong wind.
There’s an African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It means that members of the “village,” such as mentors, teachers or peers, can influence the child in ways immediate family may not.
I have a friend not raised with strong Jewish roots. His parents divorced when he was 7 years old and he had a difficult time coping. As he grew up, he found himself searching blindly for meaning in life and feeling miserable as he failed each time.
The mother of a close friend suggested a summer camp, a Jewish outreach program. He was placed in a bunk with a few incredibly influential counselors and made some really close friends.
He transferred to a Jewish high school and returned to his Jewish roots. The strong connection he established in that summer camp cemented his religious identity and gave him a reason and motivation to move past the divorce. Without the camp, he might have succumbed to the spurious happiness of materialistic things and continued on a path lacking fulfillment.
The media constantly advertises new items, as if they should be a top priority in every person’s life. You repeatedly hear about the newest video game, the latest Apple product or the most sophisticated car feature, so that you subconsciously feel that you cannot be fully satisfied without owning the latest toy.
When confronted with a challenge, these materialistic items won’t help you through — a strong connection to your roots and a solid support system of family and friends will.
So this Tu b’Shevat, as you eat your fruits and think about the trees, ask yourself: Do I have a strong support system to fall back on in the face of the unknown? And am I looking to future generations to provide them with a proper foundation as well?