Tu BiShvat: The Turning Point
BY SHOSHANA JUDELMAN
A student once asked the Ba’al Shem Tov why we sometimes feel far from Hashem when He is everywhere. The Ba’al Shem Tov responded that this is like a father teaching his child to walk. At first the father holds the child by the hands, but then backs away to spark in the child a desire to reach the father. When the child takes hesitant first steps, the father catches the child, but then backs away. This pattern is repeated over and over again in a way that strengthens the child’s muscles and empowers him to grow.
Life is a continuous cycle of falling and getting back up, of closeness followed by distance, of moments of accomplishment followed by times of doubt. One half of this process is more enjoyable than the other, yet each cannot exist without the other.
In the parable, the moment of falling is the catalyst for new growth. We see this reality reflected in so many ways in Hashem’s world. What superficially looks like the darkest moment is actually a portent of the coming dawn; the receding tide is, in reality, the base of a new wave. If we can tap into that perspective, we might change the way that we look at ourselves in times of failure.
Every year we read about Am Yisrael experiencing this cycle. When we descended to Egypt, we sank lower and lower into slavery and impurity for 210 years until it all appeared hopeless. And then, from the depths of our suffering, we cried out to Hashem: “The children of Israel were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to G-d” (Shemot 2:23).
Chassidut teaches that the redemption began the moment our people groaned. That was the turning point, even though, on the surface, nothing had changed.
The Netivot Shalom compares Am Yisrael’s experience in Egypt to that of a seed planted in the ground. The seed must rot away before new life can bloom from it. To the observer, this process looks long, hard, and sad. The seed decays and practically dies. But then, just when all hope seems gone, new growth springs forth.
In this analogy, if an impatient person were to interrupt the process and dig up the seed during the rotting period, they might despair, thinking everything was for naught. All they would see is destruction and failure. They would miss the point. The quiet dark place is not a place of ending, but a place of beginning to gather strength for new efforts. It is a necessary descent for the purpose of ascending.
Tu BiShvat, the new year for the trees, recognizes this moment in the cycle. It does not occur when trees are in full bloom, or even when they begin to blossom. On Tu BiShvat, the trees are bare and dead-looking. What are we celebrating?
Rashi explains that Tu BiShvat marks the day when most of the rains have passed, and the trees have been nourished enough that their sap begins to run (Rosh Hashanah 14a). Beneath the surface, hidden from our eyes, the tree has hit a turning point, a first step towards new life. Tu BiShvat doesn’t celebrate accomplishment, it celebrates potential.
Tu BiShvat tells us to hold on, that even if we don’t yet see the fruits of our labors we should not give up. In moments of failure, anxiety, and exhaustion, we must remember that Hashem is backing away to cause the “sap” to run inside of us, to spark the desire in us to reach for Him in an even stronger way.
When Hashem showed Moshe the burning bush, it was devoid of foliage and “fruit”. Yet the fire represented the continuous potential that lies inside of us.
The Egyptian exile was painful and harsh, bringing us to the verge of extinction. But it was a necessary step to becoming Am Yisrael. The 210 years of slavery were a purification process through which we were forged into a nation like no other. A nation that understands salvation will come, even when it seems all is lost. A nation of believers who saw redemption and continue to reach for it.
May we be blessed to know that the winters of life are the preparation for the springs, that Hashem is with us in every stage, that our fire is still burning strong, and, most importantly, that every time we fall and get back up, we are coming closer to the final redemption, may it come speedily in our days!
Shoshana Judelman teaches Chassidut for Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya in Jerusalem and in the Shirat David Community in Efrat, and guides at Yad Vashem.