A puzzle lies at the heart of Tu BiShvat, falling last night and today: when the new year of the trees is over tonight, it will still be winter.
Despite first growth, especially the almond tree flowers of the holiday’s main song, peak bloom has not arrived. In Israel as in North America, no one can yet say, “[T]he winter is past, the rain is over and gone … The fig-tree puts forth her green figs, and the vines in blossom give forth their fragrance.” Those verses from Song of Songs will not be chanted in synagogue until another holiday, Pesach, in two months.
Is it premature, or false hope, to celebrate trees now?
The answer reveals why Tu BiShvat punches above its weight as a holiday — and how its spirituality can help us navigate our moment within the era of COVID-19.
The Talmud teaches that the new year of trees is set at its wintertime date “because most of the rains of the year have fallen, and most of the season [of winter] is yet to come” (Rosh Hashanah 14a).
Tu BiShvat thus comes at a hinge moment. The land of Israel has already absorbed most of its yearly rain — a major investment in its ability to produce growth. Yet not much is growing: this investment has literally not yet borne fruit. The last era’s growth has come and gone, and the land is in stasis, waiting for a new era to start.
In any place or time, nature has a palpable effect on how it feels to go through life each day. In ancient Israel, even more so. On its Middle Eastern soil, rain and growth can never be taken for granted.
Jewish law and spirituality also places significance on a fruit tree’s age: for its first three years it lies in a fallow state with its produce not to be eaten, and its fourth year’s fruits are set aside as a gift of praise to God — necessitating a way to mark years in a tree’s life (Vayikra – Leviticus 19:23-25). The Torah further honors fruit trees as pure, defenseless givers of nourishment, even protecting the opposing side in war from attack on its fruit trees (Devarim – Deuteronomy 20:19).
Amid this sense of what is at stake, Tu BiShvat marks the end of this stasis period for the land, and announces that all that grows from now on will be part of a new agricultural year.
The holiday is no full-bloom apex. But what it does is in its way more revolutionary. It sets aside the old era and inaugurates the new. It gives us permission to say: From now on, what grows here is part of that new era. It asserts that this new growth is worth marking, and even celebrating.
There is a certain chutzpah in celebrating the spring amid the winter. Tu BiShvat suggests that we deserve that chutzpah. We need assurance that a new era will actually be here one day, that the buds we see are no mere flukes but harbingers. Implicitly, that is the assurance Tu BiShvat gives us.
Right now, as we soldier through the era of COVID-19 and this specific stage of it, we are at a Tu BiShvat moment.
In America, successful Covid vaccinations share headline space with the vaccine rollout’s problems, and warnings that the vaccination drive will take months to complete. Across the world, worse new variants of the virus are emerging. Statistics of cases and deaths continue to be staggering, and in some cases rising.
In Israel, the vaccine rollout has been exceptionally swift and effective, yet the pandemic’s toll persists in other ways — such as its excruciating psychological impact on Holocaust survivors, the continued need for Covid safety restrictions, and in response to those restrictions, chaos and violence by members of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities.
Both literally and figuratively, much of the winter is still yet to come. We face these challenges despite having been contending with Covid for months now, approaching a full year since the first lockdowns.
This moment leaves us with pain and fear over how much longer it will be until the pandemic’s end, how much more suffering and loss we will face, and how we will endure. It is agonizing to see glimmers of progress followed by more loss. The dark news can drain us of our awareness that things will ever be different.
Amid this time, Tu biShvat gently guides us to gather together each piece of promising news: the vaccines’ invention, each new vaccination, each new plan to roll out more vaccinations.
Tu BiShvat declares that these are not scattered flukes, nor do they whitewash our hard present, but rather, they are harbingers, the first growths of the future.
Modestly yet insistently, this minor arbor day testifies to the fact that dark seasons truly end, that better seasons genuinely come. In a time when it can be so hard to remember this truth, Judaism offers the reminder that we need, and the renewal, endurance, and hope that we deserve.
In Song of Songs, spring includes not only trees and vines but also that “the time of singing is come.” Right now it can be near-impossible to imagine that such a time — together in person, safe enough to feel relaxed and even exuberant — will come back. Tu biShvat marks not that this time has come, but that it will come. May this spirit see us through until that future becomes our present.