Yesterday was Tu B’Shevat. Literally, Tu B’Shevat means the 15th day of the month of Shevat. This day has been deemed the “New Year of Trees” because it is on this day that the earliest blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle. It is also on Tu B’Shevat that the trees of Israel stop absorbing water from the ground and begin to draw nourishment from their sap. For our ancestors, who were required to ritually offer (tithe) a certain portion of the fruit they received from trees to God, the fruit that had blossomed prior to the 15th of Shevat was not to be used as tithe for fruit which blossomed after that date.
What fruit we tithe, when trees start to bear fruit, and when trees begin to draw from their sap – these are not things that most of us worry about today. Yet, Tu B’Shevat remains a part of our Jewish calendar and is something many of us look forward to each year. This is because, in Judaism, we are taught that trees have much to teach us about ourselves.
In Torah, we are taught that “man is the tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19). The “tree of the field” needs soil, water, air, and light if it is going to survive. And we too need these four elements.
In the Pirke Avot 3:22, we learn that:
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. (Avot 3:22)
Our “soil” is our everyday world – the world in which we have the potential to make a difference. Many of us spend our lives learning and working in an attempt to make ourselves better. When we do this, we often fail to actively engage with the world around us. Our good deeds, our opportunities to do tikun olam, are few and far between. The Talmud teaches us that our good deeds in this world are our roots. The Talmud explains that it is what we gain from learning and working – our wisdom – that serve as our branches – that part of us that reaches for the heavens. Interestingly enough, our tradition teaches us that too much study and not enough interaction with the world around us makes us top heavy and, thus, unbalanced. A person whose actions far outweigh his wisdom, one who is “bottom heavy”, he is grounded and strong.
Our water is not simply the liquid we drink that sustains us, it is also our Torah which is described as much needed drops of rain. Our “roots”, like the roots of a tree, absorb this precious “water” and we discover an integral lesson of our tradition: we truly absorb Torah not by our branches – not by immersing ourselves in study continuously, but by living a life that actively reflects the values of Torah: by doing good deeds.
Our air is not simply what we breathe, it is our very essence, our soul, as God breathed the air of life into the very first human being. Without this sacred air that God gave to us, we would not be. Our everyday interaction with the trees, an interaction that often goes unnoticed, is a constant reminder of the sacred exchange of air that created life. The oxygen that we breathe is produced by trees. The Arbor Day Foundation reports that a mature leafy tree produces as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year. In turn, trees breathe the carbon dioxide that we exhale and that our technology emits into the atmosphere – and, in doing so, they play a major role in cleaning the air that we inhale as we read these words.
Our light is not simply the sun, the same sun that the trees rely upon, but also the Torah and God. Our branches, which Pirke Avot refers to as our wisdom (our desire to learn and study Torah), reach toward the heavens, trying to get closer to the source of all wisdom and knowledge. But, we must remember that the branches that reach toward the light require roots that dig deep into the ground.
The Torah, referring to fruit-bearing trees, states that: “you may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.” Clearly, a tree that produces fruit that can serve as food and as a gift to God, is a sacred thing. We may benefit from them, says the Torah, but we may not destroy them. We, being “the tree of the field”, must take this lesson to heart. We rely on soil, water, air, and light to produce our own fruit – our actions which are a balance of wisdom and actions that make this world a more beautiful place. We need to treat our fellow brothers and sisters no differently than a fruit bearing tree. We may benefit from the fruit of our brothers and sisters – from all the wonderful things they give back to this world. And we must never do anything to “cut them down” – to harm them in any way.