On the eve of Tu B’Shvat, I am reminded of our magical family trip to the Sequoia trees.
We were able to touch those ancient living things- some of them the oldest living trees on earth- that witnessed biblical eras and mysterious times in history.
Just the sound of their thousands of swaying autumn leaves like the luxurious rustle of taffeta gowns…It was worth the drive!
Tu B’Shvat, the 15th of Shevat on the Jewish calendar—celebrated this year on Monday, January 25, 2016—is the day that marks the beginning of a “new year” for trees.
We mark the day of Tu B’Shvat by eating fruit, particularly from the kinds that are singled out by the Torah in its praise of the bounty of the Holy Land: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.
On this day we also remember and reflect on the lessons we can derive from our botanical analogue.
Looking at these powerful but gentle giants, the term “old soul” takes on a new meaning; you’re reminded- understand- the Kabbalah’s teaching that everything has a soul.
Indeed, Kabbalah teaches us that nature serves as a mirror to our psychological, emotional, spiritual tendencies. So when the Torah tells us that “man is a tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19), there are many general truths to be learned.
Following are some of my favorites:
- The roots.
As I craned my neck to see the top of one of those towering Sequoia trees, imagining its thick branches bare from winter winds, lush with the fruits and leaves of summer, and gashed and afire from lightening, my mind automatically wondered how the tree felt weathering those intense experiences. Like all human beings, they’ve had their share of good times and challenging times. Their soaring height and rough feel of humble, weathered bark tell the story. And some two thousand years later, they’re still there, rooted firmly in the ground. How did they endure thousands of years of earthquakes, fires, winds…truly turbulent times? They have powerful roots that go on for many miles underground. Unlike flower, fruit and leaf outgrowths, there is nothing beautiful-looking about roots. But they are mighty, and they anchor their trees to withstand all kinds of weather. We, too, have roots. It is our faith, imbedded in our heart and mind. Like the roots underground, faith is not sophisticated. It’s not supposed to be. It’s simply the powerful backdrop against which we live, allowing us to withstand the inevitable frustrations, sadness, and even heartbreak that are part of life.
It allows us to acknowledge that yes, I am frustrated, sad, and even heartbroken—but I know that ultimately this event/challenge/struggle was orchestrated by G-d, and that there is a purpose to my pain.
In the same way that the extensive network of tree roots exists underground, sometimes our true inner strength is hidden from others (and perhaps even from ourselves). Ultimately, though, it is this strength, this faith, that sustains us in the various seasons of our lives.
- The blossoms and fruit.
To me, there is nothing more blissful, nothing more luscious than a freshly-picked, firm and sweet nectarine. The leaves, blossoms and fruits that spring forth from a tree are one of G-d’s greatest gifts- they don’t only look beautiful; they benefit countless others with their beauty, shade, and nutrients. We, too, produce fruit. In the literal sense, a couple, partnered with G-d, can create new human beings. We can also create beauty, things, ideas. Like the tree, our outgrowths become most meaningful when they benefit others. When we raise our children to be kind, decent, G-d-loving people. When we share our inventions, innovations, and spiritual teachings; our head and our heart with those around us. When our Torah learning gives birth to more honesty, less ego, and an abundance of sweet character refinement; nourishing others like the tree’s offerings.
- The growth.
Like the ever-growing trees, Judaism teaches us that we never arrive at perfection; that bettering ourselves is the work of a lifetime. My teacher and mentor the Lubavitcher Rebbe embodied this mindset. When a college student visited him in the 60’s and told him frankly that he admired him greatly and would love to be his Chassid but couldn’t wrap his head around the Chassidic garb, the Rebbe responded, “If all you do is wake up each morning and ask yourself, ‘How can I make today better than yesterday? How can I bring even more goodness to this world?’ I will be proud to call you my chassid.”
My personal commitment this Tu B’Shvat is to increase in happiness. Because joy is the fertile soil in which good things grow.