Growing up in California and having a birthday that falls around Tu BiShvat, I’d inevitably get the following birthday card. The front of the card featured a cartoon of an Israeli boy wearing a kova temble (pioneer hat) standing next to a small sapling. Above the picture it would read: “In honor of your birthday a tree has been planted in Israel…” And then you’d open the card and on the inside it said: “Your day to water it is Thursday.”
The main traditions for Tu BiShvat are eating fruits of the land of Israel and planting trees. While I will probably sample some kind of dried fruits this Tu BiShvat, my tree planting days stopped once I got out of grade school.
Or so I thought.
Twenty years ago, my first job in Israel after making aliyah was at the Isracard credit card company in Tel Aviv. One January day, our division manager announced that there was going to be a company tree planting event in honor of Tu BiShvat the following day organized by the HR department and she needed three volunteers from our division to represent us on the trip. I looked around and saw that nobody volunteered, so I didn’t either. (One of the first rules you learn in Israel, mainly from the army, is to never volunteer for anything.) So, the boss picked three other people to go and we all went back to work.
As luck would have it, it rained the next day and the tree planting trip was postponed indefinitely. Nobody was too disappointed. But then, some two months later, I walked into work a bit late one morning and was accosted at the door.
“Yonatan, you’re going tree planting today!’ I was informed.
“What?” I asked in disbelief.
“Tree planting. It’s happening today. Since you came late, you were volunteered.”
So, I boarded the bus along with dozens of other employees from other departments. I wondered. if they too had been ‘volunteered’.
The tree planting itself was fun (as was the barbecue they made for us!), but one memory sticks with me from that day. After the JNF representative unveiled the sign that dubbed our section as ‘The Isracard Forest’, he approached me, as I was the only one in the group who sported a kippah, and handed me a card. He requested that I read The Tree Planter’s Prayer for Planting Trees in Israel. I agreed and stood behind the JNF podium as the Isracard company photographer snapped numerous pictures of me. The next day those photos appeared on the walls of the company and then in the company newsletter (which caused me some embarrasment – but I was also the envy of the co-workers who had not volunteered to participate).
So I read the prayer in a solemn voice. “Heavenly Father… Give dew for a blessing and cause beneficent rains to fall in their season…And these saplings which we plant before thee this day, make deep their roots and wide their crown that they may blossom forth in grace amongst all the trees in Israel, for good and for beauty…And bless this land that it may flow again with milk and honey.”
How was it that I was fortunate enough to plant a tree in the land of Israel? When I woke up that morning I never imagined that’s what I would be doing. And even though I tried to maintain a low profile while doing it, The JNF (and Isracard) had other plans.
I have not gone tree planting in the two decades that passed since that day. But something occurred to me as I pondered Tu Bishvat this year. Though I may not be physically planting trees in Israel this Tu BiShvat, I am doing something equally rewarding. For the last year I have worked for WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) in the Marketing & PR Division as their Head of English Content. I write all about the life-changing work that WIZO does for children, youth, women, and more throughout the State of Israel.
This Tu BiShvat I’ll be quite busy as WIZO’s annual Meeting of Representatives (MOR) which brings WIZO leaders from around the globe together for bonding, planning, and connecting to WIZO’s work in the field, begins that very day.
For me, the most eye-opening part of the MOR is when I am able to join the international WIZO federation leaders as they visit WIZO’s projects – day care centers, school & youth villages, women’s programs and more. It’s during those visits that one truly begins to understand how WIZO changes lives. You get to see up close how a toddler thrives thanks to the love and care they receive at a WIZO day care center, you see how an at-risk youth turned their life completely around at a WIZO youth village, and you see firsthand how women are empowered thanks to WIZO programs.
In fact, it’s quite similar to what we generally do on Tu Bishvat – planting seeds and helping the sapling, or in this case, the child, the at-risk youth, the young women, grow by nuturing and taking good care of it.
My favorite Tu Bishvat story recounts how Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once asked his student Rabbi Yitzchak Meir to speak at their Tu Bishvat seudah (festive meal) of fruits from the land of Israel.
Rabbi Yizchak Meir chose to discuss the tractate which teaches that Tu Bishvat is the new year for trees, and gave a lengthy and complicated discourse on the subject. When he finally finished, The Kotzker Rebbe replied, “If we were in the land of Israel, we could just go out to the fields and look at the trees.
We would then understand what ‘new year for the trees’ really means, and we would not need scholarly learning on the subject! For there, in the land of Israel, Tu Bishvat does not say ‘darshuni’ [expound upon me], but ‘asuni’ [Do it!].”
Perhaps that’s the real essence of the holiday of Tu Bishvat. It’s not enough to just talk about it, you have to go out and experience it. And the same holds true for WIZO – seeing is believing!