A huge tree punctuated the backyard of my grandparents’ home in Kew Gardens, New York. Its height matched that of their house. My grandmother strung a clothesline from its sturdy branches to the red bricks outside of her second-story window. I can still picture her leaning precariously against the windowsill, wheeling wet clothing out and the dry back in. As a young child, I stood at the foot of this tree, peering up into its branches, mesmerized by its pointy green leaves and furrowed trunk.
As humans, we make great use of the natural resources that surround us. A tree can offer its fruit to eat, leaves for shade, and limbs to build, yet it also presents an opportunity to behold vivid hues and bold strokes, beautiful blossoms and formidable vistas that enliven the human experience.
The Torah describes the first trees which sprouted up in the Garden of Eden from the vantage of the human observer. Genesis 2:9 reads: And from the ground, God caused every tree to grow that was nehmad (pleasing) to the sight and tov (good) for eating. These trees are presented with both visual and gastronomic benefits. Eating is tov (good), a word that appears repeatedly as God pronounces satisfaction at the end of the days of creation. In contrast, the visual sensation is labeled nehmad (pleasing). This word appears here for the first time in the Torah, with each subsequent reference of its root describing an illicit desire. These include Eve’s attraction to the forbidden fruit and the Ten Commandments’ caution against coveting a neighbor’s spouse or possessions. Each of these contexts reflect a misplaced yearning. The use of nehmad in describing the visual sensation of the fruit trees in the Garden of Eden may also indicate a similar warning of human perception lead astray. While a tree can be seen as a source of sustenance, this word nehmad begs us to question if our gaze could appreciate something more.
The almond tree holds particular prominence in the TaNaKh and beyond as a symbol of spiritual significance. When Jeremiah is initiated into the world of prophecy (Jeremiah 1:11-12), God commands him to explain what he sees. Jeremiah describes an almond branch to which God immediately affirms the correctness of his sight and his readiness to serve as a worthy emissary. Rabbi David Kimchi, the 13th century exegete, suggests that the brilliance of Jeremiah’s vision is that the prophet saw a bare branch; without leaves, blossom or fruit. Nonetheless, Jeremiah was able to discern and appreciate its species. His prophetic mission to carry the nation from destruction to rebirth relied on his skillful sight, demonstrated by his attentiveness to the details of the bare bough.
The almond branch also plays a role in one of Van Gogh’s most celebrated paintings, conceived as a gift to his brother Theo. The Almond Blossom vividly depicts large almond branches, blossoming against an incredible blue sky. Van Gogh painted it in 1890 in Provence, after learning that his brother Theo, who supported his artistic aspirations financially, had become a father. He worried that his brother would need to redirect his fiscal priorities to his own wife and son. Hoping to show that his work was closer to finally proving profitable, Van Gogh described this painting and magnificent reflection of nature to his brother as “perhaps the best, the most patiently worked thing I had done.” Ironically, The Almond Blossom was never sold, but was treasured by his family and remained one of only a few of his 900 paintings they kept. While trying to prove utility, the painting and its branch became a symbol of priceless beauty.
At the same time that Van Gogh was painting this work, Rabbi Zev Yavetz gathered his grade school students in Zichron Yaakov to plant new trees on Tu B’shvat 1890. In doing so, he established the modern Zionist tradition of bringing people face to face and hand to dirt with the value of trees in developing our homeland on Tu’ B’shvat. The Tu B’shvat experience has undergone a seismic shift in Rabbinic Judaism. While the Mishnah introduced it as a day to calculate the annual tithing of the year’s produce, the 16th century Kabbalists in Tzfat and later Zionists reframed the day dedicated to appreciating the Land of Israel and nature as a whole.
This sensitivity to the messages of the Land is recognized today on the banknotes carried in Israeli wallets. In 2017, the Bank of Israel issued a new 100 shekel bill honoring the poet Leah Goldberg. It bears her portrait against a background of almond blossoms and a copy of her poem “In the Land of my Love, the Almond Tree is Blooming” in microscript. Goldberg, a native Russian speaker born in 1911 in Lithuania, pioneered a feminine voice in modern Hebrew poetry. Her insistence on expressing her creativity in Hebrew relegated much of her work at the time into obscurity. While she posthumously received Israel’s highest award for literature, the glory of her labor never fully ripened in her lifetime. Her poem invites readers to witness the blossoming almond tree, which resonates uncannily with her poetic career. For the almond tree is the first to blossom at the end of the winter, announcing the dawn of spring and yet is among the last of the trees to bear fruit.
Nature and fruit trees in particular face the peril of being appreciated merely through the goods that they provide, but the almond tree challenges that. The long arc of suspense until the almond tree finally puts forth its fruit demands that we appreciate its beauty and majesty long before we savor its culinary gifts. Tu B’shvat as it has come to be experienced invites us to calibrate our sights and behold rooted splendors and expansive possibilities independent of their utilitarian yield.