Today is Tu Bishvat! It’s the Rosh Hashanah for trees, meaning at this time Hashem determines the way each tree will receive its nurture. The majority of rain has fallen, and now the sap will begin to rise from the ground, and feed the tree what it needs to grow. This year has been especially blessed, and I look forward to great Israeli fruit this summer. If you aren’t expecting to be here to bite into the luscious summer fruit, you can very reasonably ask what the Rosh Hashanah of trees has to do with you.
Winston Churchill had it right. He was the British Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and was assigned to Palestine, which was at that time a British protectorate. Tel Aviv was the first all Jewish city to be built. The mayor, Meir Dizingoff (yes, he was mayor Meir), presided over a dusty village that wanted badly to be resurrected as a city. When he heard that the Great Man was planning a trip to Tel Aviv, he became acutely aware of one problem. Churchill was expecting to visit a city, not an adolescent settlement. The decision was made. Saplings would be quickly planted along what was optimistically referred to as the Main Street. When the entourage arrived, the day was unusually windy. The saplings swayed and finally one by one they hit the sandy floor of what today is Kikar Rothchild. Churchill looked on and then faced Dizingoff and told him what I feel is one of the most important pieces of mussar that Tu BiShvat holds. “You have to have roots if you want to grow”.
Growing roots takes time. Humans ae compared to trees in the Torah (although it would be far more accurate to say that trees are compared to humans). The context is making war. Even under those circumstances, you don’t just destroy fruit trees, because, “A man is a tree of the field” they should not be wasted. We have roots branches and produce fruit. The worst thing you can do is waste your opportunity to be you. All of this growing takes time. When you “grow” yourself you don’t necessarily notice anything happening. You feel like you are the same person you were yesterday. This is an illusion. All growth that’s real, is subtle. You can nurture yourself by giving yourself the equivalent of water sun and earth. Kuzari compares Torah to water in this that it descends from a higher place, and is necessary to stay alive. You may say (honestly) that there are many people out there who are alive and well, and don’t make Torah part of their lives. The deeper question would be “how alive is alive”. Being alive means being the midst of constant change and growth. The Torah takes you places that you wouldn’t get to on your own, places within you that are more “elastic” than you realized.
A student told me that she loves Shabbos but hates its details. I asked her for an example, and she told me that refraining from washing off a tiny stain from a particle of food seems to her to be an innocent enough act. Why go around looking like your host didn’t give napkins, especially in Israel, where this is a distinct possibility? The answer is that everything that’s inside of you demands that you take control of your life, your appearance, and the way people perceive you. It’s easy to get stuck in the unending desire to always be in control. Shabbos takes you out of what the Kabbalists call the world of fragmentation. Your appearance, self-esteem, ultimate happiness may feel as though they are one, but they are not. The easiest way to see this is by asking yourself “If wasn’t Shabbos observant, and washing off the food would be a no-brainer. Would that mean that people would like me better, my self-esteem would be iron clad and my personal happiness set in stone? Of course, the answer is no, because this is a tiny fragment of life. Shabbos takes you to the “place” of unity, in which you see yourself as part of a greater whole, and surrender control to Hashem as a way of defining yourself as part of His plan.
The sun you need is the mitzvos. The effect of sun is to generate growth. One example of how this works is the laws of charity. I am not a miser (just rather frugal…..), but I have no doubt that even if the Torah didn’t demand that I give charity, that I would. Twenty dollars here, ten dollars there, and perhaps if a particular cause touched my heart, something more substantial once every great while. There is no way that I would give away thousands of dollars a year, the way people do when they tithe their money. Once I began doing this, an interesting thing occurred. I no longer had a feeling of “owning” my money. It came to me via Hashem’s generosity in giving me what it takes to work, and the means to give charity. It’s His. Another interesting thing that happened is that instead of giving impulsively to whatever seemed most pressing at the time, I thought more about it because I felt that I had to deal with Hashem’s money with greater respect.
The earth you need to grow is maintaining a connection to the stuff that makes you yourself, your holy ancestors and the earth of Eretz Yisrael in which they lived. You come from a people for whom growth is organic. There are innumerous peoples who are more populous; in fact, there are few peoples who as small in number as we are. Everything about the moral basis of Western civilization, all of the great world religions take their inner workings from us.
Combining the water sun and earth is a long-term process. This is a great time to ask for the gift of patience and clarity, as you enjoy the fruit that Hashem has provided! The Talmud suggests that you pray for a good esrog. Most of you know that each of the four species that we take on Succot parallel a specific part of the human body. The esrog is the “heart” (and an actual heart is shaped like an esrog, not like a valentine). Let Hashem open your beautiful, feeling, sensitive heart.
So. Have a great too bishavat!