What does the Jewish New Year for the Trees have to do with the war in Gaza? A 200 year old story from a wintery night in Poland may provide a clue.

Hanukkah was the first Jewish holiday to occur since the start of Operation Iron Swords. Throughout the eight days of the Festival of Lights, Israeli TV news showed IDF soldiers in Gaza lighting candles and enthusiastically singing Maoz Tzur. Many of them spoke of ‘the forces of light defeating the forces of darkness’, and cited the very apt phrase from the Hannukah blessings, “bayamim ha’hem, b’zman ha’zeh”, in those days, at this time.

The next holiday on the Jewish calendar is Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, which falls today.  Is there any connection between this minor festival and the war?

This Tu B’Shvat we’ll surely see videos of IDF soldiers eating the customary (dried) fruits of the land of Israel. Perhaps we’ll also see some of them planting saplings in the Gaza strip. Trees will be planted in memory of those murdered by Hamas on October 7th and our brave fallen IDF soldiers as well as for the 136 hostages still being held in Gaza by Hamas.
Unlike Hanukkah, Tu B’Shvat is not about a great miracle or a victory in war, themes that tie in naturally with Operation Iron Swords. For Tu B’Shvat one must dig deep (pun intended) to find a connection.

My all-time favorite Tu B’Shvat story is about the great Hasidic leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787–1859), better known as the Kotzker Rebbe. One year on the eve of Tu B’Shvat, on what we can safely assume was a bitterly cold winter night in Poland, the Kotzker asked his disciple Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (the Chidushei haRim) to speak at their Tu B’Shvat seudah (festive meal) of fruits from the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir delved into the Talmudic section which teaches that Tu B’Shvat is the New Year for the Trees, and proceeded to give a lengthy and complicated discourse on the subject.

When he finally finished, The Kotzker Rebbe (known for his down-to-earth, sometimes sharp-witted, statements), 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 the ‘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 B’Shvat does not say ‘darshuni’ [expound upon me], but ‘asuni’ [do it]!”

What’s powerful about the story is that it has two levels. The first level is that to truly understand what Tu B’Shvat is all about you need to be in Israel and see it and experience it for yourself first-hand. The same holds true for our situation now since October 7th, it cannot be put into words. You really need to be here to truly ‘get’ it.

But the second level is even more important. Seeing and experiencing are not enough, you must also do something.

I was impressed when celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld and Elon Musk came to Israel to show solidarity and see for themselves the devastation of October 7th in the kibbutzim along the Gaza border, but it’s not enough, they, and all others, must go out and tell the world about what they saw and experienced. We in Israel all have that same duty. Tu B’Shvat reminds us that it’s not just about ‘seeing’, but ‘doing’.