A Lover’s Quarrel on Tu Bishvat

The first Mishna in the Tractate of Rosh Hashanna tells us: There are four New Years! Among them is the new year for kings, from which we count the years of their rule. There is also a new year for animals, when every animal born before that date is considered a yearling then. I grew up in Kentucky, where the same idea applies to horses for racing purposes. One horse could be almost a year older than another, but both be running as three-year olds in the Derby.

Of course, there’s also THE Rosh Hashanna, from which we count years. I’ve always thought it strange that we have our New Year’s day on the first day of the SEVENTH month, Tishre, rather than the first day of the first month. But last week’s parasha, Bo, explicitly tells us that the first month of the year is Nissan, the month of our redemption from Egypt. There are some interesting thoughts comparing the ideas of Rosh Hashanna in the fall, in Tishre, which the rabbis associate with the creation of the world, to Rosh Hashanna in the spring, in Nissan, marking the creation of the Jewish nation. But we’ll save that for another time.

Coming up soon is the fourth new years, the new year for trees, Tu Bishvat. “Tu” is how would one pronounce the Hebrew letters ט״ו. Letters are also numbers in Hebrew, and “tu” equals 15. Tu Bishvat means the 15th day of the month of Shvat. Since Jewish holidays are calibrated to a lunar calendar based on the new moon, the 15th day of the month would be a full moon, smack in the center of the month, just as Rosh Hashanna is smack in the middle of the year.

So then, what is Tu Bishvat?

Because Tu B’shvat is associated with trees, I can hardly think of it without remembering some of the midrashim (rabbinic stories and teachings) about trees. There is one, I have to admit, that has always troubled me.

מעלה ,מה נאה ניר זה ,ומפסיק משנתו ואומר מה נאה אילן זה ,המהלך בדרך ושונה ,רבי שמעון אומר .עליו כאילו הוא מתחייב בנפשו

Rabbi Shimon said: One who is walking along a path and learning (Torah), and stops learning and says “how beautiful is that tree!, how beautiful is that field!” is accounted as one who is worthy of death.

I have always hated this Mishna. That it is in Pirke Avot, the book of the ethical teachings of our sages, just makes it worse.

When I hit a mishna like this, I feel just like the person walking and learning and looking up. This mishnah makes me stop and look up. And then ask, ok, what is this mishna really talking about?

The first thing that strikes me is that our person is walking down a path. Why aren’t they sitting in the bet midrash, and then losing focus and looking out the window, says, wow, what a nice tree that it. He’s walking. Like it says in the Shema,
‘while you’re walking by the way,” which I think is a metaphor for walking down your way of life. You are living out there in the world, the daily grind, and yet you still are walking with Torah. You understand that the physical and material aspects of your life need a balance with the spiritual and cosmic aspects of your life, and then….

And then, the most natural and pleasant thing happens. You notice how beautiful the world is. A tree in the fall of full color, the swaying stalks of wheat turned into almost liquid waves by the wind. And you say to yourself, how beautiful that tree, that field….

WRONG – YOU’RE DEAD!!!! Or should be.

Really? Let’s take a step back, focus out. What is the mishna really talking about?

First of all, learning. We study a lot. We are the people of the book; we invest more in education than in the NYSE – at least we wish we did. We value achievements of mind and we trust rationality. Our “religion” is that we don’t entirely trust religion, because it doesn’t follow rational ways of thought, though we do our best to make it do so.

But is dry yeastless rationality our only source of truth? How do we understand what truth is? Do we logically deduce it from principles and apply it to life, like one with their nose stuck in a book while walking down a path? Or do we also understand truth through experience, our interactions with other people and the physical world and our feelings, which sometimes tell us something quite different from what our rational bookish minds tell us.

Recently, I read a lesson by R. Aharon Lichtenstein, the son-in-law of Rav Soleveitchik, who passed away just a few years ago. It was, I think, one of the strangest and unexpected lessons I have ever read. Harav Aharon was the head of Yeshivat Har Etzion which is, I believe, one of the driest, most intellectual yeshivas in the country, if not the world. Yet the shiur, the lesson, was an analysis of a poem by Robert Frost. Here is the poem – you may be familiar with it.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923)

Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy winds and downy flake.

The woods are lovely dark and deep. But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Here, Frost paints a scene so vivid: not just an external scene of the beauty of snow filling up a woods so “lovely dark and deep,” but an internal scene of a human soul struck to stillness and inactivity by a beauty which, on the face of it, is indifferent to human judgment. Yet in a sense, the beauty of this moment only comes alive into meaning inside the human experience. The horse, though of nature, is insensate to the beauty of nature: it thinks only of the far-off stable. The man, too, is pulled by social or business obligations of the well-lit civilized world that wants to and will tear him away from this beauty (how beautiful this tree, this field!). But does one doubt that the image is permanently etched within him? Rav Aharon warns of the dangers of being pulled from Torah study by the beauty of the world, and perhaps he would agree with our mishna. But he betrays himself with his sensitive and profound interpretation of Frost’s poem: he has – as Frost says of himself – a lover’s quarrel with the world.

And yet, the world and nature afford man’s initial insight into the idea of loving and knowing God:

והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו, ויראתו: בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו הנפלאים הגדולים, ויראה מהם חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ–מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח ומפאר ומתאווה תאווה גדולה לידע השם הגדול, כמו שאמר דויד “צמאה נפשי, לאלוהים–לאל חי תהילים ג:מב

וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן, מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו, ויירא ויפחד ויידע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה, עומד בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות, כמו שאמר דויד “כי אראה שמיך . . . מה אנוש, כי תזכרנו” תהילים ח,ד-ה.

When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify [Him], yearning with tremendous desire to know [God’s] great name, as David stated: “My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God” [Psalms 42:3].

When he [continues] to reflect on these same matters, he will immediately recoil in awe and fear, appreciating how he is a tiny, lowly, and dark creature, standing with his flimsy, limited, wisdom before He who is of perfect knowledge, as David stated: “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers… [I wonder] what is man that You should recall Him” [Psalms 8:4-5].

This insight that experiencing the beauty and grandeur of physical reality around us is a gateway to perceiving the presence of Hashem in the world is brought to us by none other than our master of rationality – the Rambam! No lover’s quarrel with the world has he!

So two explanations of our troublesome mishna suggest themselves to me. First, if one looks up from his learning and says wow, look at that tree! If I cut it down, I could heat my house the whole winter on that tree (yeah, I do that sometimes. I should be more careful). Or, look at that field of wheat, I wonder how much cash comes in from that field. These are problems, because if we look at nature only for what we can suck out of it, we are not really seeing its beauty. It’s impossible toimagine Robert Frost looking at the woods and calculating how many cords are there and if he should buy it or not. Thoughts like that take one out of the moment, the holy moment, the experience of Hashem in the works of creation.

And the other idea is that the real problem is one who, by looking at nature and appreciating its beauty, see that as separate from learning, from Torah. Because if I am looking at the world and not seeing Torah, I separate myself from Torah, from experiencing Hashem through His creation.

And I think this leads to one of everyone’s favorite midrashim on trees.

(Rabbi Yohanan ben Zaikai) used to say: if a sapling is in your hand and they said to you, go! the Mashiah has arrived! – plant the sapling and then go greet the Mashiah.

This person understands that planting a tree and greeting the Mashiach are really part of the same thing, and the sapling is already in his hand waiting to be planted. There is no lover’s quarrel with the world here either.

And as for Tu B’shvat:

I know those of you in frigid Boston and frosty Minnesota might have a hard time understanding this, and others in Florida and California might not be able to relate, but here in Israel, Tu Bishvat is the sign of life after the heavy cold and darkness of mid-winter. As I sit here at my desk, I am looking out at cloudless radiant skies, sun glistening on the pools of water in the valley below, remnants of the wonderful rains we’ve had this winter. The valley is full of plowed fields, many of which tinged with that shade of green that means new life. And just below my window, the first blossoms of the almond tree, always the quickest to flower in late winter, are spreading their smell of honey.

Tu Bishvat is waking up at 5:25 in the morning before your alarm clock beeps, seeing the sky brightening in the east, feeling that moment of stillness in the air just before the birds take over, the stillness of the house waiting for the smells of coffee and waffles to fill the void. You know you can stay in bed another fifteen minutes and maybe you do, but the energy of the day unfolding inside you is like photosynthesis and chlorophyll.

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age” wrote Dylan Thomas. Our tradition sees Man as part of the world and in the world (no, Dylan Thomas was not Jewish, but he expressed the idea of Tu Bishvat so beautifully). We are Adam (Man) taken from the adama (earth) and filled through with the breath of Hashem. We are formed not simply to be caretakers, but to work the soil and be sustained from it. Not coincidentally, the word for work is the same word used for worship. We see that our relationship to the world is not one of ruthless exploitation and insensitivity to nature, but that our relationship to the world needs to reflect our connectedness to it, in ways both physical and spiritual. The same force drives us both.

And our lovers quarrel with the world?

There are two holidays, if you want to call them that, that are named with the Tu of a month, the 15th day, the full moon. Only Tu Bishvat, the day that entices engagement with the physical world around us, and Tu B’av, the festival that brings souls and bodies together for the purpose of building love and families and future. I have been trying then to figure out what is it that links these days, and perhaps this is exactly it: both of these days mark glimmerings. Tu Bishvat is anticipating the rebirth of life, the aperitif, the pre-dawn stretch in a warm bed with the life of a day spread out before. Tu B’av is the initial attraction, the chemical click of anticipation, freshness and joy of a soul uncovered and discovered, love as pure and selfless as appreciating the beauty of the tree and the green of the field with no thought as to vain material gain. It is both the now-ness of joy of planting the tree and a quickening of blood in the heart of now. And inside the sanctification of the now is the longing for the future in anticipation of greeting the Mashiah.

And so it is appropriate perhaps, as I have found out, that the Tu B’shvat seder was unknown in the time of Mishna. The custom was not a product of the sages of the Land of Israel, but rather developed a thousand years ago among the sages and masters of Kabalah in Europe and North Africa. Not fulfillment, but longing for the land expressed itself in eating of the fruits of Eretz Yisrael and praising them, a “next year in Jerusalem” of the mouth, of the senses, the dry and sweet taste of carob on the tongue, the honey of a date, the sweet tough hide of a fig, the jeweled sensuality of a pomegranate. The joy there is of the senses, not the mind, or not just the mind, and the longing in our hearts sparked by the taste of the fruits of the Land will bring us back to the Land.

And so here we are with no lover’s quarrel, sapling in hand, straining our ears to hear the footsteps of the Mashiah.

About the Author
Reuven is a refugee from Kentucky, where his family lived for 200 years. A teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, Reuven and family are now rooted in the Land of Israel, living in Shilo.
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