Tu BiShvat: It’s Not Just About the Trees
Tu BiShvat, a Jewish holiday that starts at sundown this Sunday, has come to be called “Israeil Arbor Day” and “Jewish Earth Day” because of its traditional focus on trees and its modern observance focusing on the health of the environment.
On a deeper level, though, I believe this is also a holiday about patience. Increasing holiness requires forbearance in taking advantage of what’s in front of us and deferring our own gratification because of higher principles.
The Holiness Code is a section in the very middle of the Torah where God spells out for us how to keep the charge to be a holy people. Nestled with in it, the care of fruit trees:
“When you arrive in the Promised Land and plant all sorts of trees for food, you shall count that fruit as forbidden, and not eat a new tree’s fruit for three years. In the fourth year, its fruit shall be holy, set aside for praising God. In the fifth year it may be eaten. All this is to increase the trees yield in the future.” (Leviticus 19:23-25…translation mine)
To keep this commandment, it became necessary to record the age of particular trees. And since it’s tough to keep track of that many “birthdays”, the Sages of our tradition established a kind of “fiscal year” assigning all trees planted in a particular year the same birthday. According to the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1), Shammai thought we should mark it on the first day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat, but Hillel thought we should celebrate it on the fifteenth. As usual, Hillel carried the day.
Et Tu, BiShvat?
By the way, the Hebrew number system sometimes operates like Roman numerals, where letters stand for numbers. “Tu” in Hebrew is spelled with a tet and vav, which equal 9 and 6, respectively. So Tu BiShvat just means “the fifteenth of Sh’vat”. Not the fanciest name for a holiday, but it gets the job done.
(Get it? The headline’s a Roman joke!)
The Meaning(s) of Tu BiShvat
In taking one day a year to focus our attention on trees and what they give us, it is right and proper, I think, to use it as an occasion for mindfulness not only of God’s bounty, but also our responsibility for stewardship. Not only for trees, either, but for all of God’s creation.
But as I said, this holiday has an addition point of mindfulness for me: a reminder of the necessity of patience. If by restraining your own appetites in the moment, you can actually improve the outcome in the future, then be patient. Not easy, but wise.
(Anyone who knows me knows that patience is not a strength of mine. I could probably use a few more Tu BiShvats each year.)
Enter Parashat Beshallah
By contrast Beshallah, this week’s Torah portion, is about initiative – facing your fears, getting off the fence, and taking immediate, faithful action.
“God said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the people Israel, and urge them forward!” (Exodus 14:15)
The medieval commentator Rash interprets this: When the people were at the edge of the sea, blocked on one side by water, even as they are pursued from the other side by Pharaoh’s army, God chastises Moses for stopping too long and praying for a solution. Shorten your prayer, God says, and lead your people forward. THEN I will make a path for them.
There’s also a midrash (homiletical interpretation by early rabbis) that tells the story of Nahshon ben Aminadav, a leader of the tribe of Judah. While all the tribes at the water’s edge fought each other NOT to be the ones to step in first, Nahshon jumped in started walking, sinking lower into the water as he went. As the water entered his nose and his feet no longer touched bottom, he prayed, and only at that moment, God split the sea.
Because one person of faith took action first and then prayed for help, God saved everyone else.
Tu BiShvat & Beshallah: Like Chocolate & Peanut Butter
It’s not for me to say whether this is a coincidence, but it is interesting to me that Tu BiShvat usually falls within a few days of the Shabbat when we read this very Torah portion. Every year we encounter this juxtaposition of faithful patience in the orchard and faithful initiative at the edge of the sea. What can we learn from this?
There is due time for everything, Ecclesiastes teaches.
I believe there is a time for patience: when restraining yourself from taking action will actually help others, or yourself.
I believe there is also a time for taking action, even or especially when there’s no guarantee of success. When you know something is right, when you know something is helpful, and when the only thing standing in your way is your own fear of an uncertain failure, take action. Act, and as you do, pray for help.
I don’t believe the purpose of prayer is to ask God to do something for you.
I do believe at least one purpose of prayer is ask to help you do it yourself, when you don’t think you’re strong enough or smart enough or guaranteed success.
As we approach Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat where we also read the joyful song the people Israel sang when they arrived safe upon the far shore – the reward for one person’s initiative, and sometimes it only takes one person to save everyone – I bless you with patience in those areas of life where restraint bears fruit, and I bless you with courage and faith when what is good for you stands on the other side of your fear.
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