The Torah of the Trees

BY ESTEE FLEISCHMANN

Tu BiShvat was, quite literally, a dried-up holiday of my Diaspora youth. It meant apricots, apple rings and raisins – none of which I enjoyed, but symbolically were supposed to remind me that somewhere else in the world the thaw had begun and there was a blossoming of a fresh season. This changed for me when we were privileged, after patience and longing, to harvest the pomegranate tree in our Efrat garden in the fourth year after it was planted. With that, the new year of the trees came to represent a living halachic reality in a homeland we dreamed of for thousands of years of exile. 

Tu BiShvat in the State of Israel is a day that recalls the deeply interconnected relationship between the Jewish people and the Land upon which we reside; our ability to nurture and grow the desert into paradise and the living fulfillment of the words of the prophets. In this unique year, it is profound to note that more Jews than ever have felt this connection. When in the course of history were this many Jewish hands involved in agricultural efforts? When have Jews of all ages and professions, of all nationalities and associations come together in great numbers to assist the planting, growing, harvesting and preparation of the fruits of the Land of Israel? 

Though the holiday highlights our connection to the Land, it is particularly focused on the trees. What must we learn from the trees and how, particularly now, can trees inspire us? A series of verses from Tanach raise concerns that resonate with us deeply and can also provide answers that can give us clarity and strength during this difficult time. 

Overwhelmed with pain and suffering, Iyov highlights the strengths bestowed upon the tree in comparison to man: “For there is hope for the tree. If it is cut down, it may still sprout again, and its shoots will not cease; if its root ages in the ground, and its stump dies in the dust, it will bud from the scent of water, and produce boughs like a new plant. But a man dies and wastes away; and when man has perished, where is he? As the water evaporates from a lake, and a river drains away and dries up, so a man lies down and does not get up” (14:7–12).

Iyov’s despair is palpable and familiar to us. Why do plants and trees renew, while man cannot? Man’s death is so final, yet arboreal growth and vegetation, less developed and sophisticated than humanity, have capabilities that elude us. 

In two other books of Tanach we find the same comparison, but with a different emphasis. Both Yirmiyahu (17:7–8) and Tehillim (1:3), in nearly identical language, describe how man “shall be like a tree planted by the water, which casts its roots by the river, does not notice when it is hot, and has green leaves. It is a tree that is not worried in a year of drought and does not cease producing fruit.” In both cases, man is represented as a tree; strong, sustained by water, and able to offer lush green shade and continual fruit even under the most difficult of circumstances. Here, in contrast to Iyov, it is the image of man that represents hope, rather than the tree.  

While Iyov is focused on the fleeting nature of man’s life, both Yirmiyahu and Tehillim see the expanse of eternity. Yirmiyahu relates to the believing man, and the author of Tehillim to the one who is connected to Torah. The metaphor is of the human being who is strong, resilient, and unbreakable, who provides a canopy of support and the stability of sustenance to those around him. It speaks of the person who is defined by his deeds and not his days.   

It is Yishayahu who expands this concept from the life of the individual to the realization of our national mission: “For the days of my people shall be as long as the days of the tree; my chosen ones shall outlive the work of their hands” (65:22). Our national identity is as strong, as lasting, and as powerful as the trees, but our legacy is through our deeds and our contributions to the world. 

In this unique year, I pray that the holiday of Tu BiShvat takes on a greater significance for all Jews as we feel bonded to the Land and the people of Israel as we never have before. Through our labor of love to support farmers in need – either in person or from afar – the unity of the Jewish people will prevail. And now more than ever, that must be our legacy. 

 

Estee Fleischmann is Co-Director of Camp Stone with her husband Yakov. They made Aliyah to Efrat nine years ago with their five children from Cleveland, OH. Prior to that, she was a Judaic Studies teacher and school administrator at the Fuchs Mizrachi School for 13 years. They spend summers in Sugar Grove, PA and the rest of the time nurturing, supporting and growing the Camp Stone family.

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