This year, as we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, with its talk of trees, regrowth, and rebirth, I find myself feeling uplifted by the profound connections between trees and our people, our land, and our sense of hope for the future.
Trees have such a profound physical and metaphorical connection and symbolism for our people, that I think we can’t help but find the inspiration in them that we so desperately need right now.
Start with the song that immediately comes to mind when I think of Tu B’Shevat – “hashkediya porachat” – the almond tree is blooming. In the dead of winter, when our surroundings are at their darkest, grayest, and coldest, we celebrate the first flowering of the coming spring. We mindfully focus on that beautiful sight of the first blossoms, the sign of many more to come.
We think of the poetic verse in Bamidbar (Deuteronomy) 20:19, “ki ha’adam etz hasadeh” – “a person is like a tree in the field” – with so many possible and apt interpretations. Humans don’t stand in one place like trees, yet both cyclically evolve through growth, loss, and rebirth just the same. Trees stand as proud symbols not only of our humanity, but of our deep, longstanding, immovable roots in the fields of our holy land, with their branches reaching out like beckoning outstretched arms.
On Tu B’Shevat, we not only celebrate the trees that have already borne fruit – we plant new trees that will take many years to bear fruit. The well-known Talmudic story of Honi Hame’agel (Taanit 23a) reinforces and elevates this point. Honi famously sees a man planting a carob tree that will not produce fruit for 70 years, and asks the man how he will benefit from planting this tree. The man explains that he found a world full of carob trees, famously concluding that “Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.”
This is such a powerful message for us now, as we fight for a State of Israel that will continue to exist for our descendants, and G-d willing, to blossom, thrive, and yield much beautiful sweet fruit.
Extending this metaphor even further, right now in Israel, we have yet another new understanding of trees and the fruit they bear. With so many citizens called up to serve in the IDF or needing to evacuate their homes, countless fruit trees were left at harvest time with no one to pick their fruit. As volunteers, including both Israelis and visitors from abroad, have stepped in to help, they have found something remarkable: Although many of the fruits and vegetables became overripe and no longer saleable, they still must be plucked in order to make way for new growth.
As Fran Kritz observed while picking lemons at Yad Mordechai during Jofa/Maharat’s recent Israel mission, plucking the old sour wrinkled lemons in order to make way for fresh bright new lemons to grow next season is the ultimate example of the heartening adage of turning lemons into lemonade. Although it may sound trite or simplistic relative to the existential threats we are facing, its symbolism runs deep. We must all continue plucking the sour lemons in order to make way for fresh ones to emerge.
The tree can’t help but reassure us that no matter how difficult things get, there is always hope. There is always new fruit to bear. And yet, the process of tree growth is slow, and patient watchfulness is indispensable. In contrast to construction, where we can accelerate the process by using more workers, we cannot hasten the process of the tree’s growth. We can water and feed it, and hope that the sun will shine brightly upon it, but we cannot make it grow faster – and as slow as that process may feel, and as much as we feel a lack of control over its outcome, we know that with time the tree will indeed grow.
This element of time is meaningful too, as a healer of the pain, wounds, traumas that Israel is experiencing. Here also, we don’t really control the time that it will take to ease such unfathomable pain, and to find whatever peace and comfort can be found amidst such loss – but we can do what is in our power to be strong, and to help strengthen each other – “chazak v’nitchazek” – so we can live to see the new fruits of rebirth emerge from the devastation and desolation. Just as the dove finds that first olive branch as a sign of life after surviving the great flood in Noah’s ark, we find signs of life in those first blooms of the almond tree. In those lemon groves awaiting their first buds to appear.
For me, Tu B’Shevat has never held so much meaning as it does right now. The trees, like Am Yisrael, remain deeply rooted in our land, patiently awaiting the arrival of fresh lemons and their sweet lemonade.