Tu B’shvat is, unsurprisingly, one of my favorite holidays. This year, falling as it does on the final day of my month-long sojourn, I found myself in the peculiar situation of leaving it more or less unobserved.
That won’t do, so I dug up a Dvar Torah I wrote for DBH (Divrei Beit Hillel, a weekly student-run* publication of Penn Hillel) in 2008 – or if you prefer, 5768 – just for fun. Of course, I quickly discovered that what had once sounded perfect needed some work, and found myself editing the damn thing. One thing led to the other (if you give a moose a muffin…), and once I had the article reasonably close to where I wanted it, I figured it couldn’t hurt to also share it with you all. So while I don’t think what follows is all that profound, I hope some of you find it meaningful and decide to recycle or something.
And with that endorsement, enjoy:
Today, we celebrate Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year of the trees. The source for the holiday is a passage in Tractate Rosh Hashanah that states that there are four New Years on the Jewish calendar – the New Year for the trees is just one.
But Tu B’Shvat differs from the other three in one fundamental way: where the others are observed on the first days of their respective months, we celebrate Tu B’Shvat – as suggested by its name – on the fifteenth of Shvat. Rosh Hashanah explains that the primary reason for this practice is that the late date is more in tune with the holiday’s celebration of agricultural cycles (porachating, and such). We delay the New Year of the trees in order to maximize its relevance – in other words, we delay gratification in order to reap a greater reward at a future date.
Tu B’Shvat’s embodiment of delayed gratification is, I would posit, in some way related to the holiday’s celebration of trees. While chopping down a tree can provide wood in the present, living trees can provide food, medicine, gum, spices, shade, temperature moderation, resistance to erosion (ask the Gulf Coast what happens when you destroy mangrove forests), air and water filtration, CO2 absorption, and critical habitat for wildlife, all for more or less the cost of a piece of land the size of a tree’s base.
It’s always nice to tie the weekly Torah portion into any given Dvar Torah, so I took a look at last week’s portion, Beshalach. Unfortunately, it didn’t have what I was looking for, so I instead turned to Shelach (whose name coincidentally comes from the same root as Beshalach). Shelach tells the story of the twelve spies sent to scope out the Promised Land. The spies report that they have discovered a land full of oversized fruits (a fact which probably would tie in nicely to a different article about Tu B’Shvat – but not this one). The spies also report that the inhabitants of the land are giants and that the Israelites would be unlikely to defeat them. God is so upset by this report that he punishes the Israelites with forty years of wandering in the desert. But a few decide to ignore his advice – someone should have told them God’s advice isn’t really advice – and continue their assault, with predictable results.
Rabbi Myles Brody suggests that God’s punishment was intended to teach a lesson in delayed gratification. Until that point, the Israelites had become accustomed to having their needs filled instantly: When their water was bitter, it was made sweet. When they were hungry, they received manna. When they felt carnivorous, they received quail. And when they created the Golden Calf, they were (mostly) forgiven in short order. By forcing them to spend so long in the desert, God taught the Israelites – and, indirectly, countless readers of their story since – that, essentially, good things come to those who wait.
I will conclude with a related story as recorded in Tractate Ta’anit. A man named Honi – he of circle-making fame – came across an old man planting a carob tree. He asked how long it would take before the tree bore fruit, and when he learned it would take seventy years (a figurative time span meant to exceed that of a human life), Honi pointed out that the planter was not likely to enjoy the fruits of his labor (pun intended? or perhaps shit just got literal). The man replied, “I found this world planted with carob trees. Just as my father planted those trees for me, so too must I do the same for my children after me.”
Leaving aside the issue of whether introducing more carobs into the world is really doing anyone a favor, I would like to suggest that Tu B’Shvat serves as an annual reminder that the old man’s words remain as true today as they were when first spoken nearly two thousand years ago. As the Native American proverb says – because I can’t express it any better in my own words – we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
And to any trees out there celebrating: Have a wonderful and sweet New Year. (I would wish you an inscription in the Book of Life, but that could be awkward. How about the Kindle of Life? I suppose fire might be a touchy subject, too. It just occurred to me I should start calling Rosh Hashana ‘New Year of the Dead Trees’. On second thought, I don’t think anyone else would get it.)
*Shoutout to my main man (and original editor of this piece), Yael, and her sidekick Hacao