What should we be thinking about and davening for on this day?
It’s a minor holiday, barely acknowledged, moderately celebrated. For many of us, it passes us by without us even noticing. But what is it all about? “It’s the Rosh Hashanah for the trees,” we have been taught since first grade, maybe earlier. The fate of the trees is decided. We daven for our esrog. We eat the peiros Eretz Yisroel. And yet, this day seems pretty significant for the trees and their fruit, not as much for the people.
If Tu B’shvat is all about the trees and their fruit, why is it a Yom Tov, albeit a minor one, for us humans? It’s not like we celebrate any other non-human Rosh Hashanah. After all, the first of Elul passes unnoticed and the first of Nisan is barely a blip on our radar, aside for calculation purposes. Why Tu B’shvat?
While much of the deeper meaning behind the day and its significance is steeped in mystical sources, the underlying factor that brings a holiday for the trees into the realm of the human is man’s comparison to the tree. “Ki Ha’adam Eitz Hasadeh,” we learn in Devorim 20:19, in the context of the prohibition to destroy fruit trees. Man is a tree of the field.
What is it about humans that resembles a tree? What can we learn from this comparison so that we can make this Tu B’shvat one of growth and inspiration?
While the majestic tree soaring heavenward is what catches one’s eye, its power lies beneath the ground. The roots determine the status of the tree more than anything one can see; they determine the tree’s vitality and power more than the branches, the leaves or the fruit. For a tree whose roots are dying will soon be felled, and though it appears mighty to the eye, all it takes is a stiff wind to bring it to the ground.
A person’s emunah and his connection to Hashem is his roots. It is what keeps him grounded, what keeps him safe and strong in a world where the winds are growing so incredibly fierce by the moment. He can build a flourishing life with all of the modern conveniences, fitting in with every other beautiful tree on the block. But if his roots have never been developed, or if they have decayed and atrophied with time, all it takes is one crisis, one challenge, and he is crushed.
And his community standing, his chesed, his chumrahs, all of the beauty he has brought into his life are on shaky grounds if they are not rooted firmly in his connection to Hashem.
How does one ensure his roots are strong? By planting them in rich soil. He needs to find a community and neighborhood whose values are rich, where his soul will be nourished. He needs to find himself a Rov, a chaburah where he can nurture his roots. If he comes from a home that provided the nutrients in which he can build his connection to Hashem, he is fortunate. But if he doesn’t, he need not despair. He may have to import some soil; he may have to work a little harder and look a little further to find his rich soil, but he can create his own environment to be one conducive to his avodas Hashem. And of course, he needs to make sure that the home he builds is one where his own saplings can plant the deepest, most powerful roots.
While the roots are the most vital part, a tree isn’t a tree with roots alone. The trunk of the tree is the largest, most visible aspect of it; it is the part that grows the most and reaches the greatest heights. Once a person has established his roots and built his faith, he can’t stop there. He needs to continue to grow, as nourished by the water seeping in through his roots, by the sunlight shining down from above. (More on that later.)
The trunk is where the tree’s growth is evident, with each year of life adding another ring to its girth. Man’s trunk is his actions, his behaviors. The way he lives his life. This builds his character, this is the part that the world gets to see and admire. The tree is always growing; rings are constantly added. Man too must always grow. There is no stagnation in avodas Hashem.
Sometimes he feels empty. He may be struck by lightning; he may be invaded by insidious insects who feast upon his wood. In the attempt to prune some branches, he may chisel a little too much. All of these cause the trunk to get hollow in places. If there is too much hollow space, he can crack in half at the next storm. He can be easily felled, and may need to be chopped down before he falls unexpectedly and causes damage. But the tree is resilient; often it can compartmentalize the decay and grow around the hollowness; it adds more growth rings and strengthens itself.
Do you ever feel empty like that? You go about your life exuding strength, being there for all those branches relying on you for support, but inside you feel so, so empty? Don’t despair. Work on building those callouses to surround the empty spaces. Replenish, rejuvinate and grow on. Remember your strength, and when you feel empty make sure to fill your coffers so that you can keep growing, adding new rings and protecting the integrity of your structure.
The tree’s growth is his own, but it doesn’t stop there. A tree with just a trunk is not much of a tree at all. The tree has many hundreds of branches. It has leaves, and in the most fortunate of cases, it has fruit as well. A life lived well has a powerful impact. It provides shade to the people walking beneath it, spreading comfort and relief. It supports the many branches that stem from it, providing a home and shelter for the many green leaves it produced.
But nothing gives the tree more eternity, more wholesomeness than its fruit. In the prohibition to cut down trees, it is the fruit tree that is so cherished, because its impact is forever. One tree contains the potential for millions and millions more, so that his leafy legacy is perpetuated forever.
When you work hard your whole life to maintain your values, to remain connected to the source and to keep on growing, you can take pride in the fruit you produce, in the indelible impact you have made on the world. Imbibe their sweetness, for you have earned it. Your leaves, your fruit. They are your family, your students, your legacy. It can take years to see, but one who toils always bears fruit.
Nurturing the Tree
A tree that is not nurtured properly will not survive the elements. A tree needs water to survive. Our mayim chayim is our Torah. Without Torah, we become parched, desperate and dehydrated. We may not realize it right away, but if we go too long without it, we begin to slowly shrivel up into ourselves. Our tree needs sunlight. We need warmth, encouragement and support to help us grow and thrive. Without friendship, mentorship, love, we will find ourselves feeling neglected and malnourished. And, as we said before, we need the rich soil, the spiritually rich environment to enable our roots to sink deep and allow us to grow to our full, majestic potential.
Other Tree References:
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. 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. (Avos 3:22)
Torah is a tree of life for all who grasp onto it. (Mishlei 3:18)
For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people. (Yeshaya 65:22)
For he shall be like a tree planted by the water, and by a rivulet spreads its roots, and will not see when heat comes, and its leaves shall be green, and in the year of drought will not be anxious, neither shall it cease from bearing fruit. (Yirmiya 17:8)
He shall be as a tree planted beside rivulets of water, which brings forth its fruit in its season, and its leaves do not wilt; and whatever he does prospers. (Tehillim 1:3)
Bringing Tu B’shvat Home: This year, as you daven for your esrog and partake in the fruit of Eretz Yisroel, here are some other things you can keep in mind to help make it a meaningful day:
- Daven for your own esrog, but also for your tree. Daven for your growth, for deep roots and sweet fruit, for the ability to withstand the winds and storms of our time and stand strong and powerful as a source of comfort and strength for those around you. Daven for your fragile saplings, as well, that they should grow into a powerful tree someday. Plant your seeds as tiny as they might be, for from a single seed, a forest arises.
- Remember that it’s all about the process. We celebrate our fruit at a time when there are no fruit yet, but the process of their growth has begun. The first rains have fallen and the sap is beginning to rise. As much as the fruit is the end result of all your efforts, what leads to the fruit must be cherished as well. All of the growth that you put in, the life you’ve lived and the strides you’ve made are celebrated as much as the fruit. Cherish the process.
- Appreciate nature. The wonder of trees and fruits remind us of the awesomeness of Hashem’s magnificent world. What greater way to build emunah than to look around at the breathtaking beauty around you and remind yourself where it all came from.
- Yearn for Eretz Yisroel. Eating the peiros of Eretz Yisroel should bring on that nostalgia for our home, our land. Daven for moshiach to come today, so that by next Tu B’shvat we can celebrate the land flowing with milk and honey in the land itself, surrounded by its kedushah as it is fully rebuilt.
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