As a nature-loving, vegan, environmental Orthodox Jew, it’s obvious why I love Tu B’Shvat. A whole day in the Jewish calendar when tree-hugging becomes normative and accepted! And while we know that the original intention of the day was not to be a Jewish Earth Day or a Jewish Arbor Day, but rather a day that marked the beginning of the new year for trees regarding the tithing of their fruits, it was still a day that made people stop and think about trees.
And that, I think, is so cool.
Because deeper than that, it’s a day that inspired Jews in ancient Israel and still inspires Jews in modern Israel to think not only about the trees, but, more specifically, the land from which those trees grow. The land of Israel.
Because before there was Zionism. Before there was even Judaism. Before there was all the hype about the Start-Up Nation. Even before the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, there was just the land. Without politics. Without green lines, blue lines or any lines. Without economic theories. Without social structures and social issues and social action. Just the land.
“A land that I will show you,” God poetically said to Avraham in their first conversation that inspired Avraham to pack his bags and journey to a land he’d never seen. And upon arriving there, Avraham is told to walk the land, its length and its breadth. To get to know the land. Like a biologist, geologist and botanist all wrapped up in one. But, interestingly, the verb that God uses to tell Avraham to walk appears in the reflexive form. Because his walking through and around the land was not just a physical act, but a spiritual one as well. By getting to know the land, Avraham was better understanding himself.
Because to us Jews, the land of Israel is not just a geographical location. It is a place that, on many levels, is more metaphysical than physical. It’s a place that helps us to understand who we are, both as individuals and, collectively, as Am Yisrael.
As HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook (1865-1935) wrote:
The land of Israel is not some external entity.
It is not merely an external acquisition for the Jewish people.
It is not merely a means of uniting the populace.
It is not merely a means of strengthening our physical existence.
It is not even merely a means of strengthening our spiritual existence.
Rather, the land of Israel has an intrinsic meaning.
It is connected to the Jewish people with the knot of life.
Its very being is suffused with extraordinary qualities.
The extraordinary qualities of the land of Israel and the extraordinary qualities of the Jewish people are two halves of a whole.
Tu B’Shvat helps us to remember that, in the beginning, there was just the land.
And yes, in the decades, and centuries and millennia since things have moved way beyond that original simplicity to a situation that is sometimes painfully complex. But to the degree that we can remember that, in the beginning, our focus was solely and directly with the land of Israel, like a husband and wife at the beginning of their marriage focusing intensely and intently on their relationship before life hits them raising kids and paying bills and a million other things; to the degree that we can remember that, we as a nation will better be able to overcome any challenge that comes our way.
Because we will have roots. Strong roots. Roots that keep us here even when it seems that there may be easier places to live. Roots that keep us standing tall even through the strongest storms. Roots that keep us standing proud and declaring loud “Hineni!” — “We are here!” — both to ourselves and to the world. Because we, as a nation, as the nation of Israel, have what to do in this world. And this place, the land of Israel, helps us to do it.