Tu BiShevat

Tu BiShevat, the 15th of the month of Shevat, which is mentioned in the Mishna as the “new year of the trees,” is in fact not a festival at all: it is a legal date which has to do with calculating the initial formation of the fruit, deciding what kinds of tithes should be given and when harvests would then begin. Celebrating this day seems, at first glance, as strange as it would be celebrating the beginning of the new financial year or school year.

Isaiah 65-22 days of a treeYet Tu BiShevat has been a festive day not only since the return to Zion in modern times, but during the entire time of our exile and throughout the Diaspora. Jewish law rules that on this day, the Tahanun (prayer of supplication, omitted on festive days) is not recited. In addition, it is customary to eat fruits on this day, and in the Diaspora, a special effort was made to eat mostly fruits that grow in the Land of Israel. Oriental Jews even have an entire ceremony text for the night of Tu BiShevat (called Seder Tu BiShevat).

The point of Tu BiShevat is to make a connection between the “new year of the trees” and the core essence of the Jew. This inner connection between man and tree is expressed in eating fruits; but it is also the connection between the Jews and the Land of Israel. The entire cycle of the Jewish year is connected with the Land of Israel, as is reflected in the Jewish prayer book; almost every major prayer mentions the Land of Israel more than once. But the prayer-book Land of Israel is an abstraction; for many generations, and for so very many Jews, it was an imaginary entity, a dream land. Even in the poetry of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi the Land of Israel is not a reality: it is a spiritual being. On Tu BiShevat we try to make contact with the physical, actual Land of Israel – the one that Rabbi Nachman of Braslav described after his visit there: that soil, the small stone houses, and the fruits that one can chew and taste their sweetness.

The Midrash describes how Moses pleads God to enter the Land of Israel. Why did he want that so badly? Some scholars say that it was because he wanted to fulfill the commandments that apply only in the Land of Israel. But a literal reading of the text implies otherwise. Moses, who wishes to see “that goodly hill-country and Lebanon” (Deuteronomy 3:25), wants to enter the Land even as a small animal or bird – because it is “a pleasant land,” a land which, above and beyond all reckoning, is a sweet home. On Tu BiShevat, when we eat the fruits of the Land of Israel, we celebrate the “pleasant” land aspect of the Land of Israel (see Zecheriah 7:14).

Furthermore, there is a connection between man and tree, and this relationship is reflected in the obscure verse, “is the tree of a field man” (Deuteronomy 20:19). This verse can be interpreted in a number of ways; but whichever way we choose to look at it, it is obvious that there is a relationship between man and the trees of the field. Hence, the new year of the trees is somehow related to the new year of man.

In Isaiah (65:22) there is another, somewhat less known verse:

“As the days of a tree shall be the days of My people, and Mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

The first thing that this verse describes is longevity. In the same chapter (verse 20) it says that in the days to come, “the youngest shall die a hundred years old” – which means that human beings will have long lives, like trees. (It is uncertain whether trees in nature – unlike cultivated trees  actually die, or whether they die only because of some accident. Unlike animals, whose life expectancies are more or less known, the life expectancy of trees is an unknown. In New Mexico there is a small pine tree that is possibly the oldest living tree in the world; according to the rings in its trunk, it is some 4,500 years old – predating even our Patriarch Abraham – and it still grows and produces new pine cones.) Therefore, “as the days of a tree shall be the days of My people,” means a limitless existence.

There is, however, an additional aspect to “as the days of a tree shall be the days of My people”; but in order to understand it, we first have to examine the structure of our lives nowadays.

One of the problems of human beings almost everywhere in the world, and most especially in Western culture, is how we relate to our age. Biologically speaking, human beings have a much longer childhood than any other animal, because we are complex creatures that need training in many areas that no other animal needs. To this, Western culture adds many more years of preparation for life, years that are a kind of prologue to life: kindergarten, elementary school, etc…up until college; and then, so many people go for their Masters degree in preparation for their Ph.D., which is supposed to lead them to professorship, which is but a stage prior to retirement. On the other hand, humans also have an extended old age; whichever way we may define it, it is considered a time in which a person’s capabilities only go downhill. In between these two periods there is the time in which people consider themselves living beings who can realize their potential to the fullest extent.

There is an Arab parable about a lion who wants to teach his cub about the world. He tells the cub: “We lions are afraid of no creature  except for human beings; they are dangerous. I want to show you what they look like, so that you will know how to watch out.” They see a child, and the cub asks: “Is this a man?” “Not yet,” says the lion. Then they see an old man, and the cub asks: “Is this a man?” and the lion replies: “Not any longer!”. Thus, until I reach the stage in which I consider myself “grown up” I do not live yet: I am in preparations; and from a certain point on, I begin to reminisce, either with pleasure or out of regret. This view of life, then, encompasses only a small section of our lives.

Furthermore, this notion that there is a “before” and an “after” to our lives actually makes “life” itself segmented, chopped up. I devote so much time to these “before” and “after,” that I no longer have time to experience the thing itself. When I am in the “before” stage, I think about what will be; in the “after” stage, I think about how things were. Either way, there is nothing to make me hold on to the present. And so it happens that people prepare and prepare, and when the time comes  either to practice a profession, or to get married, or do whatever else they had in mind  nothing much is left. For example: in the academic world in general, and in Israel in particular, it takes many years to get a Ph.D. When a person finally receives this longed-for title, he often finds that all the young years in which he could do things, in which he could innovate, were spent writing a doctoral thesis which, more often than not, becomes less and less important with time. Then he gets a chair at a university, and spends the rest of his time re-reading excerpts from that thesis. The same applies to married life: so many romantic thoughts, grandiose plans and love songs, both written and unwritten, are done before the wedding, that by the time a person gets married, there is no longer any energy left for romance or song.

This kind of a life, with long preambles and an extended old age, are like a bell-shaped curve with very wide margins and a rather low peak. It is a life full of frustration, disappointment and stress. Indeed, the high level of stress in our lives today is largely the result of the fact that we build our lives around this false premise.

A famous poem by Abraham Ibn Ezra says:

“The past is gone
the future – not here yet;
the present – is like a blink of an eye;
whence, then, our worries?”

This poem can, perhaps, be twisted as follows: if “the past is gone, the future is not here yet, and the present is like a blink of an eye” – “whence, then, our life?” This is not a trivial question: it is a life question, the question of our life.

The verse from Isaiah, mentioned above, offers a completely different structure of life. “As the days of a tree shall be the days of My people” points to a life of ongoing, unceasing growth. A tree may be big or small, and the rate of its growth or the quality of its fruits is not always the same; but it never stops growing. This constant growth is the ideal hidden within the prophecy: to live without thinking of the greatness that awaits me in the future; to live like a baby, who does not think about what it will do when it is 22 or 72 years old, but simply lives. At the age of five, this becomes much more difficult, and even more so  at the age of 20; nevertheless, instead of thinking about what I’ll be able to do in the future, perhaps I should think about the kind of life that I am having now. The present is where life is; and as a living person, I can make use of what I have to the utmost extent. Being an ailing ninety years old person may not be so very desirable, but even such a person can do things – things that befit a ninety year old.

In the Wisdom of Our Fathers (Pirkei Avot 5:22) it says: “A five-year-old begins Scripture; a ten-year-old begins Mishna; a thirteen-year-old becomes obliged to observe the commandments; a fifteen-year-old begins the study of Gemara…” and so on, until the ages of ninety and a hundred. This Mishna reflects a similar world-view: each age has its own tasks, its own unique possibilities. So instead of saying to oneself: “Now I’m fifteen; what shall I do when I’m eighteen?” one thinks: “I’m fifteen; what am I supposed to do now?”

This is precisely how righteous persons throughout the generations have been acting. The focal point of our thinking is not life for the sake of the morrow – not even the morrow of the world to come – but rather life today; “this day – to do them” (Deuteronomy 7:11; see also Massekhet Eiruvin 22a). What will tomorrow bring? That’s not so important. What matters now is what is now. The son of a famous tzaddik was once asked: what was the most important thing your father ever did? And he replied: whatever he was engaged in at the moment.

Such a life is not lighter, more loose or thoughtless; on the contrary: it is much more intense, because it is not wasted on plans or regrets. This is the intensity of “as the days of a tree,” of the never ceasing, fruitful vitality. Take a look at a stump of a cut down tree, from which a small green branch sprouts. It is truly moving to see how something that seems so dead contains a life force that breaks forth: one more leaf, one more branch. These are “the days of a tree,” the never ending awe, excitement and activity of “now.” “This day – to do them,” this day – to live them. This applies to all ages and all states of being. The question always is — what do I do, given what I am now, not in terms of what I wanted to be or what I once was.

Let us go back now to the latter part of our verse, which complements the idea: “and Mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” When a living person does various things, he often finds himself beyond them, living a different, new kind of a life. My actions at the age of fifteen were suitable for that age; now that I am eighteen, I should be asked to do different things. If I do something, and that thing – working, building a career, building a reputation – now binds me, then that thing continues to live, while I myself become more and more dead. In other words, the deeds of my hands get the better of me. For instance: I worked as a clerk at the Income Tax office. Income Tax existed before I came there, and will continue to exist after I leave; I was no more than a tiny cog – no, not even that: a small piece of paper that is thrown away after use. In order not to get to such a place I must renew myself; and renewal takes place wherever and whenever I am not stuck.

This, then, is a new kind of an introduction between ourselves and the trees. From now on, whenever we go out and see a tree, we can pat its trunk and say, “You’re really great, and I would like to be just like you.”