Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Lessons from a Tree

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Tu B’Shevat is one of those days on the Jewish calendar that many people don’t appreciate.

Ask the average person about Tu B’Shevat and they will likely respond that it is a day that has something to with eating dates and buksor.

A more knowledgeable person knows that Tu B’Shevat is the “Rosh Hashanah of trees.” If he’s really knowledgeable, he will launch into a halachic dissertation about agricultural laws governing produce grown in Eretz Yisroel, and how Tu B’Shevat is the demarcation date separating this year’s produce from last year’s.

But many wonder what the lesson of Tu B’Shevat is, and what message there is for us on this day.

After all, it’s not every agricultural demarcation date that gets a special holy day named after it or that is strong enough to cancel out Tachanun (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 131). When is the last time you celebrated Rosh Hashanah of maaser beheimah, which falls on Rosh Chodesh Elul? Or Rosh Hashanah of kings, which falls on Rosh Chodesh Nissan?

Clearly, Tu B’Shevat is a day that is supposed to mean more to us than its importance as an agricultural landmark. The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary to Shulchan Aruch, refers to Tu B’Shevat as a “Yom Tov.” Like every Yom Tov, it must contain its own unique, eternal message and spiritual essence, which impact the world anew every year.

The Torah teaches us, “Man is the tree of the field” (Devorim 20:19). The Pnei Menachem explains this posuk by identifying three halachic characteristics of the tree that have some bearing on mankind:

1. Trees, by halachic definition, strike perennial roots that remain in the earth throughout the year, unlike vegetables, which need to be replanted (see Tur 103).

2. Trees stand tall, unlike vegetables, which grow close to the ground (see Tosefta, Orlah 5).

3. Trees provide shade to their immediate vicinity (see Taanis 5b).

There is something we can learn from each of these characteristics. The deeper the tree’s roots, the more nourishment and energy it sends to its branches, and the sweeter its fruit. This may seem self-evident, but in light of the existence of the law of gravity, it is clearly one of those miraculous processes that Hashem instilled into the laws of nature.

Logic would seem to dictate that the deeper the tree’s roots dig themselves into the ground, the less nourishment should reach the top. Yet, we see that the tree has been created in such a way that it defies the law of gravity.

The same applies to the Jew. Every aspect of his environment tries to pull him downward in spirituality - the physical temptations that plague him incessantly from childhood to old age, the constant pressure of making a living, raising children and marrying them off, and the many things that transpire during a stressful day.

Yet, Hashem has implanted in us the power of the tree. We have the ability to defy the spiritual law of gravity and channel our strength to grow in spirituality despite the anchor trying to pull us downward. Every day, we daven to Hashem to “bend our inclination to submit to Your will.” We plead with him to help us wrestle with those aspects of our lives that are trying to pull us away, to turn them around and to actually use them to elevate ourselves further in ruchniyus.

Another amazing thing about the tree is that its deep roots permit it to stay alive even when the rest of it undergoes a form of death, such as during winter, when it sheds its life-giving leaves and enters a state of deep hibernation which, from the outside, takes on the appearance of grim death.

Our lives, too, have many seasons. The Jew - both on the individual and national levels - experiences his share of bright summer days full of dazzling sunlight and clear blue skies. But, inevitably, winter comes and the days grow short. The skies turn a metallic gray and the elements snarl at us, giving us the chills. At such times, we withdraw, put up our shields and seek shelter within, shedding our leaves and stopping to bring forth fruit, undergoing a process that may appear to be a form of death.

But like the tree, even at depressing times, the force of life continues to pulsate deep within the Jew. It is all due to his deep roots. These roots connect him to the Source, to the wellspring of kedushah, taharah and wisdom. So long as the Jew’s roots remain intact and he continues to grasp firmly to the unbroken chain that connects him to the ways of the Avos, the teachings of Har Sinai and his people’s 3,300 years of uninterrupted Torah study, mitzvah observance and mesiras nefesh, he remains alive even in the worst of circumstances. Eventually, winter passes, the snow melts, and the tree shoots forth blossoms to greet the new spring with renewed vigor and dedication.

At first glance, the tall stature of trees does not seem to be in consonance with the spiritual aims of the Jew, since we are bidden to be humble and subject ourselves to the Divine will. Therefore, standing tall, which symbolizes pride, has negative associations (see Brachos 43b).

On the other hand, Chazal teach, “The Shechinah dwells only with someone who is powerful, wise and rich” (Nedorim 38a).

The Chasam Sofer resolves this apparent contradiction by explaining that humble behavior is a praiseworthy achievement only if the person had reasons to feel haughty but he overcame those feelings and subjugated himself to Hashem’s will. This is the kind of person with whom the Shechinah dwells. The Shechinah does not dwell with a person who has an inferiority complex, who doesn’t have any reason to feel haughty, and for whom behaving modestly is therefore no challenge at all.

From the tree we learn that the Jew can reach a perfect balance. He should stand tall and feel proud of being a member of the chosen nation, who thanks Hashem every day for choosing us. He has been given all the attributes he requires to fulfill his mission in this world and to serve Hashem.

Chazal say that a tree’s height can be estimated by calculating the extent of its shade (see Eiruvin 43b).

Similarly, a person’s spiritual stature is measured by the impact he has on his immediate surroundings. If a person has a positive influence on others and motivates others to learn Torah, observe mitzvos and perform chesed and maasim tovim, he is on a path of spiritual growth and ruchniyus.

However, if he finds himself pulling others down in ruchniyus by encouraging them to become more lenient in mitzvah observance, or slackening off in Torah study, or by turning people against each other, then something has gone wrong. His spiritual growth has become stunted, and it is time for him to examine his actions and find the source of the fault.

Tu B’Shevat comes to remind us of our elemental tasks in this world. It’s a time to ask ourselves where we are going and whether it is the right direction. Is our spiritual side in control, or are we being driven by physical forces that dominate the world around us? Perhaps it is time to take a break and try to get our proper bearings.

Tu B’Shevat is a time to shoot our spiritual roots deeper into the rich soil of our people’s heritage, to channel that invigorating energy high up to our waking consciousness, and to resolve to deepen our devotion to the study of Torah, the Tree of Life.

If we succeed, with Hashem’s help we will merit to see our bare, frozen branches filled with fragrant blossoms and rich green leaves. They will, in turn, cast a shadow over those with whom we come in contact, and bring them closer to Hashem and His Torah.

Chazal say that marriage is akin to the rebuilding of a destroyed Yerushalmi home. Many explanations are given. For the purposes of our discussion, we can understand it to mean that when one builds a Jewish home, he doesn’t do it according to his whim, or in accord with the styles of the day. Those of us who want to succeed must build our homes on the foundations of old, on the traditions passed down to us through the generations since the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh in Yerushalayim.

A couple who establishes a home on that bedrock underpinning is one who will succeed in transplanting and nurturing a healthy, proper life. The deeper we plant our roots, the stronger we will be, and better able to realize the fruition of our dreams.

As we celebrate Tu B’Shevat this year, let us review the posuk at the beginning of Tehillim which states that a person who desires Torah and studies its precepts and words day and night will be like a deeply rooted tree which grows alongside brooks of water, yielding its fruit and never withering. He will succeed in everything that he does.


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