Trees, transformation, and Tu B’Shevat

Religions, like trees, have lifecycles. They change with the times. Some elements fade away, while others grow with new life. Ironically, Judaism’s holiday for the trees is itself bound up in our faith’s ever-evolving lifecycle. This symbol of renewal has itself been renewed.

Tu B’Shevat – our ancient version of Arbor Day – was a relatively minor holiday throughout our centuries in exile. This is no real surprise; trees are connected to the land, and we, as displaced Jews, were not. Of course, there was always a small community of Jews in our homeland, but as a people, we were dispossessed of our land and disconnected from our roots.

We had our vineyards and orchards in Babylon and Berlin, Persia and Prussia, Rome and New Rochelle. But our agricultural laws only apply to the Holy Land. For the purposes of our faith, the trees of our homeland are the only ones that matter.

In this context, the tree is a Talmudic stand-in for the concept of home. Trees are where we set our roots. With our backs to our trees, we make our stands.

On some level, I believe that the Jews of those by-gone days knew that while they might have been living in their countries for generations, they were never in the home of the Jews.

And so, Tu B’Shevat languished in aspirational stasis for centuries. But this changed with the birth of modern Zionism – when the People began to return to the Land.

When the early pioneers of the Zionist movement came to reclaim the Land, they reclaimed Tu B’Shevat as well. It became a holiday that embodied the spirit of the movement – a commitment to making the Land bloom, to plant the trees and put down roots. The pioneers, in their zeal for cultivating the Land, rebranded Tu B’Shevat as the holiday of the trees.

There is something awe-inspiring in the ability to rediscover and revitalize the texts and traditions of our past so that they might better serve the needs of our community in the present. Tu B’Shevat epitomizes that ancient vitality reborn in our day.

But the pioneers didn’t get it right. Or at least not completely. While laudable and well-meaning, their interpretation of Tu B’Shevat does not quite match with the original source for the holiday, since the Talmud calls Tu B’Shevat the “New Year for the Tree” in the singular, rather than the plural.

Some explain this as a generalized form of speech in which the singular is used to refer to the collective, like the phrase “the days of man” refers to all of humanity rather than a single individual. This is, of course, a valid approach that strengthens the pioneers’ agricultural stylizing of the holiday.

However, other scholars take a different tack. In their view, Tu B’Shevat is really the holiday for “The Tree,” meaning the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This interpretation of Tu B’Shevat takes us all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Our tradition tells us that in Eden the trees miraculously rose up from the ground fully formed. There were no sprouts or saplings, only matured flora of all types. There was no individual growth in the Garden, only perfection.

Adam and Eve believed that eating from the Tree would allow them to emulate – and thus come closer to – God. They sought to transform themselves into beings of divine knowledge. To be like their Creator. To grow, rather than exist in the stasis of the unchanging Garden as they perceived it.

The knowledge of good and evil presented spiritual difficulties for Adam and Eve to overcome and thereby better themselves. God mirrored this desire for challenges by creating hardships in the physical world as well, namely childbirth and the need to cultivate the land.

In their misguided attempt to improve themselves, Adam and Eve transgressed God’s commandment. In answer to that transgression, God gave them what they sought: the opportunity to grow.

Framed in this light, Tu B’Shevat – “the New Year of The Tree” – is in fact the holiday of growth.

Growth is the antithesis of perfection. As its core, perfection is hopeless. When one is perfect, there is no hope of better times on the horizon, only fear of the fall from grace.

Inside of perfection, there is fear. Growth, in contrast, is all about hope. Inherent in our ability to grow is our ability to aspire. To improve is laudable; to aspire for improvement is irreplaceable in the human spirit.

As people, we plateau at the notion of perfection, at which point we enter into stasis. But growth pushes us beyond the perfect, and in so doing, it creates a new definition for the word. To grow is to go beyond the limits of our own perceived perfection.

But growth is hard, metaphysical or otherwise, as evidenced by the burdens of Adam and Eve after their Expulsion. At its core, growth is struggle. It is reactionary, and does not exist in a vacuum.

Growth is change in the face of challenge, even if that challenge is as basic as the biological needs to eat and reproduce.

That same concept holds true for spiritual growth.

This does not mean overcoming challenges, only facing them. Even when we fail, we grow. In the best cases, we grow positively and learn from our mistakes. In the worst cases, we grow negatively, and are reduced by our failures. Yet this is growth all the same.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil epitomizes the idea of growth. In approaching and internalizing the Tree, Adam and Eve embraced transformational growth over perceived perfection, for better or for worse.

But this perception was flawed. While the Garden may have encapsulated perfection, Adam and Eve did not possess perfect knowledge of it, hence the first half of God’s commandment to them: “From every tree of the Garden you shall surely eat.”

The mission of the Garden was exploration, not evolution. Adam and Eve were tasked with experiencing everything that the Garden had to offer, to explore it and expand their understanding of it. In so doing, perhaps they would have been able to expand the Garden itself, and thereby expand the state of perfection found within it.

In essence, Adam and Eve chose to grow the wrong way. Tasked with experiencing reality in the Garden, they instead chose to change their own perception of it. Adam and Eve acted on the desire for transformational self-improvement, and bore both the benefit and the burden of that decision.

Tu B’Shevat, in memorializing that event as the “New Year for The Tree,” reminds us of humanity’s never-ending quest for growth. In the brave new world outside the Garden of Eden, growth is the only constant, and our hopes for positive growth are our brightest guiding lights.

Tu B’Shevat reminds us to aspire for more, and to work toward improving ourselves. This year – on this new year for “The Tree” – may we merit to grow for the better.

About the Author
Yitzchak Besser is an American Israeli attorney.
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