Jewish Soul Journey

Tu BiSHEVAT : A TIME OF RENEWAL

Rabbi Yehoshua Binyamin & Mrs. Falk

Tu BiShevat: A Time of Renewal

The Glorious Proliferation of Trees

From the metaphysical to the metaphorical, from the mechanical to the medicinal, trees are sources of wonder and joy, nourishment and nurture. Metaphysically speaking, the Torah teaches that the Tree of Life was a link to eternal existence. Metaphorically speaking, the Torah compares mankind to the trees in the field (Devarim 20,19), and indeed, we exist in a symbiotic relationship with them – so much so, that we speak of ourselves as being “rooted” in reality with ideas that “bear fruit.”

In their mechanical and physical aspects, trees are no less remarkable. Did you know that there are almost 247 billion trees of all sizes in the United States? That is a blessing because even a single tree produces some 260 pounds of oxygen per year, and thus two mature trees can supply enough oxygen per year to meet the needs of a family of four. Trees contribute to the water supply, as well, with our national forests serving as the originating point for drinking water used by some 3400 communities and 60 million individuals. Trees provide shade and wind buffering that reduce annual cooling and heating costs by 2.1 billion dollars, reducing the temperature in buildings some 20 degrees in the summer. Trees are an abundant source of raw material in the form of wood and paper. An average family uses about 750 pounds of paper every year, and 95% of the homes built in this country are made of wood. And these figures don’t even begin to speak of the food that comes from trees.

A Season of Silent Celebration

These statistics bear witness to the extremely productive role played by trees in the worldwide ecosystem, yet we celebrate their New Year during their deepest stage of hibernation, in a still and seemingly lifeless period in the midst of the winter when not a leaf is left to rustle or a fruit remains to be plucked. What is it that causes us to remember the tree at the nadir of its yearly cycle, and how can we understand human productivity in this context?

Indeed, lack of productivity makes many of us uncomfortable and is particularly difficult for the “movers and shakers” – the trendsetters and money makers – who spend their lives amidst the constant hustle and bustle of the fast-paced metropolitan hubs.

In this, the fifth or so generation after the birth of the “Industrial Age,” the goal has been and continues to be efficiency – cheap, mass-produced items whose worth is measured in quantity rather than quality. Indeed, progress in every area of life has come to be based upon that end. In this regard, fruits are plucked before they have ripened, and all sorts of services have been “outsourced” or computerized. The secular media mill is expected to churn out new material each day, and therefore often settles for banality and mediocrity in an effort to feed the voracious appetites of readers, listeners and viewers. Children are placed in a school setting which expects students to learn more and faster by bombarding them with an enormous amount of facts and figures, often at the expense of quality, sensibility and balance.

Growing up in this world, it is no surprise that many feel very uncomfortable when faced with periods of dormancy – times when life seems unproductive, torpid and inactive, and when creativity and inspiration are on the wane. Therefore, it behooves us to try to get to the root of the matter and then make concerted efforts to reach up to pluck potentially fruitful insights that can excite our taste for and appreciation of those periods in our lives that are relatively “passive” and appear less productive. Let us now discover from the “tree of life” how to reinvigorate our own lives by learning to view this phase of “cyclic hibernation” as an essential stage that prepares us for the next step in our growth and renewal

Growth Beneath the Surface

Although imperceptible to the external observer, on Tu BiShevat, the life-giving sap, hidden deep within the tree’s core, starts flowing upward, triggering the tree’s awakening. Although human growth is not necessarily tied to the seasons, we, too, undergo transformations – spiritual and psychological restorations that occur well beneath the surface, often hidden even from ourselves; and it is apparent that the winter months lend themselves to the kind of solitude and isolation that is conducive to contemplation and inner change.

As our Sages have informed us, “The greatest of blessings comes from that which is hidden from the eye.” Nonetheless, we have been instructed to begin proclaiming at this time the beracha of “Shehechiyanu,” expressing thanks and praise for this auspicious time.

If it is better to keep this transformative process hidden while it does its work, why do we forgo the benefits of concealment by openly declaring the greatness of this period through our berachos? Perhaps we can venture to say that our proclamation of gratitude and total acknowledgment of the true Source of blessing enables us to tap into an even greater beracha of renewal and growth than does our silence. The blessing of Shehechiyanu acts as a catalyst, catapulting us above and outside the realm of teva (nature), and therefore, we no longer need be concerned with remaining concealed. Now, all of our potential mitzvos and ma’asim tovim can unassumingly begin to be revealed, each in its ideal time and appropriate place.

The illusionary forces of stagnation that correspond to the depth of winter only exist in those who don’t recognize from where the “fruit” of their actions evolves. By binding our souls to the Creator with cords (blessings) of praise and sincere appreciation, however, as through the beracha of Shehechiyanu, we can overcome all impediments, thereby clearly recognizing the great value of each and every stage of our existence, sustenance and development. A seed represents potential. Only after sprouting and undergoing a lengthy gestation period does the seed gradually grow and develop until reaching fruit-bearing maturity. So also do we grow and develop in a slow and gentle unfolding from birth to adulthood. Like trees, however, people cannot truly reach maturity until they actualize their potential by producing luscious “fruits,” which are their mitzvos and ma’asim tovim.

Individual Place of Development

There is another insight that can deepen our understanding and appreciation of the different stages of life. Most trees produce their fruits after relatively few years. One notable exception, however, is the olive tree, which does not begin to bear its highly praised and valuable fruit for many, many years. What can we learn from this phenomenon? Perhaps it is to make us cognizant of the fact that each person’s potential for development has a different timetable. Assuming that we are making our best efforts, we should never become frustrated or envious if we see our peers “succeeding” in ways that we have not. There are early bloomers and late bloomers, but if each of us develops our potential, we will, in the proper time and setting, merit to bear exquisite fruits.

In summary, let us approach this season of potential renewal realizing that even during the quiet, seemingly less productive, or even challengingly restrictive periods of our lives, there is hidden within us a reservoir of potential spiritual influx waiting to be tapped, bringing with it an elevating surge of renewal and inspiration. By acknowledging our belief in the absolute governance of the compassionate Creator, we can remove the personal impediments of imagined limitations, thereby enhancing our potential for rejuvenation, change and growth. May we all together raise our voices in thanks, proclaiming Shehechiyanu for our existence, veki’yemanu for our growth and sustenance, and vehigianu for developing and bringing us la’zeman hazeh – to this special moment in time.

Rabbi Falk devotes his time to studying and teaching Torah and engaging in kiruv activities. He is a frequent contributor to these pages. Mrs. Falk has taught and lectured on Jewish topics and is also involved in kiruv. They live in Brooklyn where Mrs. Falk serves as an attorney. Their article, “Reframing Your Life,” appeared in JO, Apr. ’04.