A Tree of Life
BY RABBI ANDREW SHAW
I remember shivering as a young boy when we planted a tree on Tu BiShvat in January in North West London Jewish Day School back in the early 1980s. I found it surprising that a day celebrating trees was held during the winter. Surely it would have been better to wait until the spring, when conditions are far more hospitable for a tree to blossom.
Of course, the 15th day of Shevat has nothing to do with the weather in London, but rather with the agricultural cycle of Eretz Yisrael. Nevertheless, my question still stands, for Israel is situated in the northern hemisphere and the month of Shevat is also a wintry month in Israel. Why not celebrate Tu BiShvat in Nissan or Iyar, during the spring?
The Meiri offers a powerful explanation with important implications for our own time. He explains that the twelve months of the year are divided into the four seasons. The winter months are Tevet, Shevat and Adar, which makes the 15th of Shevat the midpoint of winter. In other words, on this day we begin to turn the corner; we are now closer to the end of winter than the beginning. On Tu BiShvat we can begin to plant and build for the future, despite the outwardly harsh conditions that surround us. Similarly, we hope that we are closer now to the end of the COVID pandemic than to its beginning, even if the pandemic is still with us.
There is another message we can learn from the trees. If a sapling has the strength and sturdiness to survive the cold, snow and harsh conditions of winter, it is a sign that the tree has deep and powerful roots. A tree is only as strong as its roots in the ground. The same is true of our people. The winds of assimilation and apathy blow ever stronger across our Jewish forests. To survive, the soil in which we are growing our Jewish saplings must contain the spiritual nutrients of Torah to nourish the souls of our children and allow them to blossom and grow deep roots – spiritual roots that will give them the strength to survive and thrive not just through the warm summers of life but also through the cold and difficult winters.
It is a terrible shame that during the cold of winter a tree appears in many assimilated Jewish homes, a tree that symbolizes the failure of Jewish continuity. Reporting on the Pew survey of the American Jewish community of 2013, the New York Times reported: “The first major survey of American Jews in more than 10 years finds a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish – resulting in rapid assimilation that is sweeping through every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox. The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58% for all Jews, and 71% for non-Orthodox Jews – a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.” Sadly, the situation has only worsened since the 2013 survey.
How ironic that bringing a tree into the home has become the symbol of the assimilating Jewish family whose Jewish roots are weak and fragile! Unlike the tree of Tu BiShvat, the tree of assimilation is either fake or has been detached from its roots; it is a tree that will not survive and cannot grow. Tragically, this will also be the fate of the vast majority of Jewish children who grow up in such homes. They too will not have the strength to grow and blossom as Jews.
This Tu BiShvat, let us pray that Jews everywhere understand the need to plant deep Jewish roots of Torah and mitzvot, roots that can survive even the harshest of winters. As Shlomo HaMelech taught, “It (Torah) is a tree of life for those who grasp it.” May we raise a strong and committed generation of Jews who will be ever-connected to the etz hachayim – the tree of life!
Rabbi Andrew Shaw is the Chief Executive of Mizrachi UK.