The fruits of our labor: A teaching for Tu b’Shvat
Accomplishments are more satisfying when we’ve invested our own time and energy into achieving them. Unfortunately, the effort itself may seem unsatisfying – filled with frustration, disappointment, and hard work. How can we resolve this challenge? The sages teach a lesson about this, using the metaphor of fruit trees, which is relevant to this coming week’s celebration of Tu b’Shvat.
Rashi, citing the midrash, explains that when they were created, the trees erred. G-d instructed the creation of fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it. But instead, what grew were trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it.
The fruit of the tree could be thought of as its result, which tastes sweet to us. Trees also produce bark and wood. Like the effort to accomplish a result, it often doesn’t taste good at all. But in the original plan, the tree itself was supposed to taste as sweet as the fruit.
Rav Kook teaches that at the end of days, when the created world will return to its originally intended state, the bark and wood of trees will taste as good as the fruit. Continuing the metaphor, he asserts that in the future the effort involved in producing a result will be as satisfying as the result itself. (Orot HaTeshuva 6:7)
Meanwhile, we have a challenge in producing meaningful long-term results. The effort may be hard and long. We sometimes would like to skip the difficult part. But skipping straight to the result without expending the effort is not nearly as satisfying at the end.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a, we learn the following story:
One day he [Choni the Circle Drawer] was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.
The source goes on to explain that Choni slept for seventy years and found the carob tree fully grown, proving that the planter’s intention had been fulfilled.
However, after he awakened, things didn’t go so well for Choni. He went to find his family, and learned his own son had already died. When he went to the study hall, his own wisdom was being taught in his name, but no one believed he was Choni, and he wasn’t treated with the respect he deserved. He had missed his own life – filled with struggle and challenge (and perhaps with impatience for that carob tree to grow) as it might have been. Finally, he prayed for mercy and he died.
Through the lesson of inter-generational planting, Choni learned that our actions are not only for ourselves, but also for our children and grandchildren. But Choni’s lesson also shows that if we were to sleep through the process and go straight to the end, we might not be satisfied. To enjoy the fruits of our labor, we need to put in the effort first.
As Jews alive today, we exist within a long chain of Jewish and global history. Previous generations worked hard to build Jewish schools, institutions and communities we found ready for our use and benefit. And in many countries where Jews have lived in the recent past, including in the United States and Israel, the generations before us worked toward the establishment of laws that have helped make sure our air is clean enough to breathe and our water safe to drink. So too we must plant and build so our children, grandchildren, and future generations will have enough food, clean energy, protection from harmful chemicals, and a healthy, sustainable way to live.
The Jewish way is to do the hard work now for future generations.
Some trees take a very long time to bear fruit. Some things that we do will take a very long time to make a difference. We may spend a lifetime working towards results we will never see. And yet we still need to work toward them. It is not ours to complete the work, and yet we must undertake it.
On a personal level, what are some things that you would like to do, but might hesitate to take on because the result could take a long time? Can you think of something that would be worth the effort even if you knew you would never see the difference it made in the end? Specifically, what could you do to protect the environment that might take even 70 years, but would make sure there is enough food, water, and clean air for future generations?
Let’s use the wisdom of this Tu b’Shvat to make commitments that plant for those who will come after us, as those who came before planted for us.
 As cited in English at https://etzion.org.il/en/philosophy/great-thinkers/rav-kook/fruit-and-tree
I offer thanks to those who provided helpful feedback in developing this teaching, including Ora Sheinson, Rabbi Barry Kornblau, and Heather Shafter.