Tu BiShvat in Challenging Times:
Confidence about the Future Rooted in Appreciation of the Past

BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN

At first glance, Tu BiShvat, the Rosh Hashanah for fruit trees (Rosh Hashanah 1:1–2), is of mere technical significance – the calendar marker for a new cycle of fruits. Surprisingly, though, we treat Tu BiShvat as a minor holiday on which we skip tachanun and avoid fasting. What are we celebrating on Tu BiShvat?

It is also noteworthy that we celebrate only the Rosh Hashanah of trees and not that of other plants. Why are trees more important than other vegetation? The answer lies in the Torah’s parallel between man and tree.

Our relation to trees

The Torah justifies the prohibition against using a fruit tree as a battering ram by explaining that “man is like a tree of the field” (Devarim 20:19). In what way is man like a tree?

The Maharal uses the next chapter in Devarim to explain the comparison. When faced with an unsolved murder, the elders are required to sacrifice a calf that has never plowed in a ravine that has never been plowed. Chazal explain that we sacrifice the calf’s potential productivity in order to atone for the lost potential “fruit” of the murder victim, who can no longer raise a family nor fulfill mitzvot (Sotah 46a). 

Humans, like trees, have creative potential. We are commanded to value a fruit tree’s productive potential to ensure that we value our own. This is why an unsolved murder requires atonement. We respond to the disregard for the value of human life with a ritual that reminds us of every living being’s potential and the need to respect its realization (Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael 3). Tu BiShvat also reminds us of the “fruit” we can produce. As long as G-d grants us the gift of life, we must maximize it.  

The resilience of the Jewish people

The Jewish people are similar to trees in another way. Yishayahu HaNavi equates Jewish history to “the days of a tree” (65:22). How are they similar?  

Unlike annuals, which produce fruit for only one season and then die over the winter, trees regenerate each spring and once again generate fruit. The celebration of the Rosh Hashanah for trees in the middle of the winter emphasizes this special trait. Though trees seem dead on Tu BiShvat, in truth, they are about to begin a new growth cycle. Iyov adds that a tree also has “hope” – even if most of it is cut down, it can grow back. 

The Jewish people are similarly resilient. Unlike other nations, which rise and then fade forever, the Jewish people have returned to prominence after two millennia of exile and persecution. Throughout Jewish history, we experienced many periods of suffering, but they were always followed by success and growth. After the Holocaust, we were in a desperate state. But Hashem comforted us with the miraculous founding of the State of Israel, which has fostered our people’s physical and spiritual rejuvenation.    

On Simchat Torah, we experienced such a low. On Tu BiShvat, let’s remember that, like trees, we too will flower again and reach even greater heights.

Planting trees – believing in redemption

Avot D’Rebbe Natan states that one who hears of Mashiach’s arrival while planting should finish planting and only then greet Mashiach (Nuscha Bet, 31). Why is finishing planting more important than greeting Mashiach?  

Choni Hame’agel studied the famous verse that describes our redemption: “When Hashem returns us to Zion, we were like dreamers.” He wondered whether it was possible for a person to sleep for seventy years, the length of the first exile. One day, Choni met a man planting a carob tree. Knowing that it takes seventy years for such a tree to produce fruit, Choni asked the man why he was planting a tree whose fruits he would never enjoy. The man answered that just as he enjoyed the fruits of trees planted by earlier generations, he, too, was planting for future ones. Choni then fell asleep for seventy years. When he awoke, Choni met the man’s grandson, who was enjoying the fruits of his grandfather’s labor (Ta’anit 23a).

What is the relationship between Choni’s study of the verse of redemption and the man who planted trees for his grandchildren? Choni wonders about sleeping for seventy years and the connection to redemption. Tree planting is the answer. Redemption comes when we work for our people’s future in this Land. We finish planting before greeting Mashiach because the faith expressed by planting trees is what brings him.

In exile, Jews traditionally lacked the motivation to invest in trees and other infrastructure. But in Israel, we must remember that we are now home – in a place that is our own where our descendants will iy”H continue living. We express this appreciation by planting trees for them.

Many around the world are once again challenging our rights to the Land. On Tu BiShvat, we appreciate our return to Israel and reaffirm our faith in our eternal relationship with it by enjoying the fruits of our ancestors’ labor and investing in the Land for our descendants.

 

Rabbi Reuven Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and the Dean of the Yeshivat HaKotel Overseas Program.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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