Happy Tu b’Shvat!
(Today’s dvar Torah is an excerpt from my Bat Mitzvah speech, which was about Tu b’Shvat, and how people have common ground (pun intended 😉 ) with the beautiful and purposeful trees Hashem has graced this world with.)
Approximately four months before the holiday of Tu B’Shvat the rainy season starts, in Eretz Yisroel, The Land of Israel. The rains saturate the soil and nurture the trees so they will blossom and fruit. Almond trees grow in abundance across Israel – in groves and throughout the country’s many hills and valleys. Almost magically, the almond trees’ first blossoms appear each year in Israel, on Tu B’Shvat, marking the New Year for trees and the return of spring in the land of Israel.
In our synagogue, it is our custom to celebrate this new year for the trees, by holding a Tu B’Shevat seder, or ceremonial meal. This tradition can be traced back to the Middle Ages. It includes a festive meal featuring fruits in honor of the Shivat Haminim, the seven species, for which Eretz Yisroel, is praised: Figs, Dates, Pomegranates, Olives, Grapes, Wheat, and Barley.
In various places, the Torah compares a person to a tree:
– A person is like the tree of a field… (Devarim 20:19)
– For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people. (Isaiah/Yeshayah 65:22)
– He will be like a tree planted near water… (Jeremiah/Yirmiyahu 17:8)
Why the comparison?
A tree needs these four basic elements in order to survive — soil, water, air, and sun. People require these same elements.
The soil is home to the roots, it is through the soil that nutrients are absorbed. The soil provides room for the roots to grow. Like a tree, man absorbs his nourishment, such as values and morals, through his soil and roots. A tree needs to be planted firmly in the earth. This is true of a person as well, man is grounded by his roots, giving him the strength he needs to persevere. Without roots, neither tree, nor man, can survive. This is our FAITH.
The Talmud explains:
“A person whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, is likened to a tree whose branches are numerous, but whose roots are few. The wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down.” Meaning, if a man, like a tree, is not anchored, grounded by strong roots, then when confronted with a strong wind, or difficult challenges, tree or man, can be uprooted, or turned upside down.
The Talmud continues:
“But a person whose good deeds exceed his wisdom is likened to a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous. Even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place. (Pirkei Avot 3:22)” Meaning, if man, like a tree, has solid roots, or has a deep connection to community and heritage, then when confronted even with the strongest of winds or the most difficult challenges, he will not be uprooted.
Rain-water is absorbed into the ground, and through the roots, is carried throughout the trunk, branches and leaves, the body of the tree. In (Devarim 32:2), the Torah is compared to water. Moshe says: “May my teaching drop like the rain.” Both rain and Torah descend from the heavens, providing relief for the parched. Without water, a tree will whither and die; without Torah we, too, would whither. Torah gives life to the human spirit.
A life based on Torah will blossom with wisdom and good deeds.
Rabbi Akiva once noticed that splashing water, near a stream, had hollowed out the nearby rocks — that drops of water had actually bored a hole, right through rock. He said “if the gentle drops of water can pierce a rock, then the powerful words of Torah could penetrate his heart.” He applied himself diligently to the study of Torah. He used to say that a Jew without Torah is like a fish without water.
A tree needs air to survive. In Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, the Torah states that God breathed life into the form of Man; “He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life.” The Hebrew word for breath — nesheema — is the same as the word for soul or spirit — neshama. Kabbalah teaches that smell is the connection of the physical and spiritual…our connection to the soul. The Talmud says: “Smell is that which the soul benefits from, and the body does not. Of man’s five senses, smell (air) is the most spiritual.” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 93a) says that “when Moshiach, the Messiah, comes, he will ‘smell and judge'”, meaning, he will use his spiritual sensitivity to decide the truth about difficult matters.
A scent can awaken one from a faint because it reaches the soul and brings renewed strength to the body. An individual is refreshed upon smelling a pleasant fragrance. Coming home on Friday afternoon and smelling the delicious aromas of Shabbos, comforts the soul. We are taught in the Talmud that on Shabbat we each possess an “additional soul” – a revelation from the deepest part of a person’s essence. Come nightfall on Saturday, we make havdalah, the separation ceremony — we say goodbye to Shabbat and this soul departs. We rejuvenate ourselves by smelling besamim, spices — a pleasant fragrance. This AIR, calms, pleases, refreshes and warms the soul, bringing renewed strength from a higher place.
A tree needs sunlight to survive. It is essential for the growth and health of the tree. People also need sun, or WARMTH, to survive. This is the warmth of family, friendship and community. All crucial Jewish observances and ceremonies are based on family and community — the celebration of birth, spiritual maturity, marriage, and even death.
This tight-knit connection provides the light and warmth which nurtures our growth. We love, teach, and learn from each other. We share our simchas, joys, and our sadness. And while these bonds may bring us difficult challenges, they also give us strength and some of our greatest happiness.
The Talmud tells a story about the sage named Choni HaM’agel. He wondered if it was possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years. One day he was traveling on the road, and he saw a man planting a carob tree. The sage, HaM’agel, asked him; “How long does it take for that tree to bear fruit?” The man replied, “Seventy years.” He then further asked him- “Are you sure that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found mature carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me, so I, too, plant these for my children.”
HaM’agel sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky form closed over him, hiding him from sight. He continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke, he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him: “Are you the man who planted that tree?” The man responded: “I am his grandson.” HaM’agel exclaimed: “It is for sure that I slept for seventy years.”
There is an important lesson to be learned from this story. HaM’agel realizes this lesson when he wakes after 70 years, to see the grandchild of the planter, eating the fruits of his grandfather’s labor. The man does not plant his seed for himself, but to benefit his children – his successors. Man may toil in this life while reaping no direct advantage, only so his children will enjoy the rewards of his effort.
Have you planted a seed during your life? If not, nothing remains when you are gone, and your life does not have lasting significance.
However, if we all plant a seed, by learning Torah, obeying the commandments of Hashem, by acting morally and compassionately, and by teaching our children to do the same, they, too, will grow strong roots, bodies and souls. They, too, will plant seeds of their own.
Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for Trees, is a perfect time to focus on the lesson of the tree, and to remember that now is not just time for physical planting, but the time to sow some spiritual seeds, as well.
All of us can produce fruits that benefit the world—namely, through our good deeds.