Trees and Hope
Shabbat Shira/ Tu Bishvat
18, 2003 - 15 Shevat 5763
not often that Tu Bishvat and Shabbat fall on the same day as they do
this year. Add to that the fact that this is also Shabbat Shira, the
Sabbath on which we read "Az Yashir," the song which Israel
sang at Red Sea, and we become aware that we have ample reason to celebrate
today. This is the day on which we not only plant trees (when it's not
Shabbat, of course) but also a season
that gives us the sense of hope. Shabbat Shira always comes out in close
proximity to Tu Bishvat - one might say we plant the seeds of hope on
Shabbat Shira. Right here in the middle of winter we have our first
taste of spring.
might be surprised to learn, then, that Tu Bishvat was not always the
Jewish version of Arbor Day. That's a relatively recent reincarnation
of this ancient observance. In fact I'm not even sure that Tu Bishvat
was originally even a holiday in the true sense of the word.
Mishnah mentions that there are four "Roshei Shanah," four
new years, in the Jewish calendar: the first of Tishrei, the first of
Nissan, the first day of Elul and the month of Shevat. These were not
necessarily occasions for celebration but rather significant dates in
the Jewish calendar which marked important events in the cycle of the
year. While Tishrei and Nisan each welcomed the beginning of an important
holiday season they served other purposes as well. Tishrei was also
the beginning of the year for marking the Jubilee and Sabbatical year,
while Nisan was "the beginning of the year for kings." In
other words, no matter when a king took office, the first day of Nissan
marked the beginning of the second year of his monarchy.
and Shevat, on the other hand, had to do with the yearly agricultural
cycle. Elul was the new year for tithing one's livestock. The Torah
required our ancestors to set aside a tenth of the herd and flock for
God. One judged what the tithe for the past year was based on the first
of Elul. In other words, it was ancient Israel's version of April 15th.
Similarly, Shevat was the day for setting aside one's priestly obligations
from trees. By the way, the day of Rosh Hashanah Li'elanot was not completely
clear: According to Beit Shammai it was the first of Shevat and according
to Beit Hillel it was the fifteenth of Shevat.
ancient Israel there was no fanfare or celebration on Tu Bishvat. I'm
not even sure people went out and planted trees. It was simply a day
to be marked by filling out the proper Jewish version of the 1040 form
so that you could pay your annual tithe to the temple. It's only been
in the last century that Tu Bishvat has taken on greater significance
with the reclamation of the land of Israel by the Jewish National Fund.
Suddenly planting trees became a Mitzvah in which every child in religious
school had to participate. Songs were written about the blossoming of
the Almond tree and Tu Bishvat became a celebration of our connection
to the land of Israel. Tu Bishvat, it seems to me has more to do with
modern miracles than ancient traditions - in the course of the past
century the JNF has planted over 200 million trees in Israel. That is
truly an awesome acclompishment!
was reminded of the importance of the JNF recently while closing up
my mother's apartment in Harrisburg. Among the many papers that I found
there was a document from the JNF that was at least 60 years. It acknowledged
a contribution made in memory of Morris Greenspan, my grand-father and
namesake for the reclamation for a fifth of a dunam of land in Palestine.
We sometimes forget that the JNF is more than just trees - it was responsible
for purchasing and reclaiming thousand of acres of land before Israel
even existed. That work continues today with the building of Israel's
infrastructure and creating a system of water works so that Israel can
Jewish mystics in the sixteenth century already began to sense the importance
of Tu Bishvat four centuries ago. They composed a special Seder modeled
after the Haggadah which celebrated the importance of the fruit that
grew in the land of Israel and the seasonal changes they witnessed taking
place around them. Today the Tu Bishvat Seder has become a popular custom
in many communities though it has been colored more by the agenda of
the JNF than the mystical ideas of the ancient Kabbalists. Still, it
acknowledges that every tree, every blossom is a miracle.
what's most significant about Tu Bishvat is the importance of trees
in the minds of the Jewish people. From the opening chapters of the
Bible, great importance has been placed on trees and the role they play
in our lives. The Garden of Eden centered on an Etz Ha Hayim. And for
our forefathers, trees were often places of dwelling and contemplation.
Abraham, we are told, dwelled at "Elon Moreh, the terebinth of
Moreh, literally the tree of a teacher, and the prophetess Deborah is
remembered for sitting beneath a palm tree, Tomer Devorah. Later in
the book of Deuteronomy, we're told that trees must be protected, even
in times of war. "Are the trees of the field human to withdraw
before you into the besieged city?" the Torah asks in warning us
against cutting down fruit trees when laying siege to a city. Trees
represent the future. And even in times of war we must protect them.
tree as a symbol of hope and the future is best illustrated in the well
known story of the folk hero, Honi the circle maker, found in the Talmud.
Honi comes upon an elderly man planting a carob tree. Surprised that
his man would go to such effort, he says to him: Why do you bother to
plant this carob - don't you know that it will not bear fruit for seventy
years: long after you're dead?" The old man replies, "Just
as my grandparents planted for me, so I plant for my grand- children."
In the end Honi becomes the Jewish Rip Van Winkle. The Talmud says that
he slept for seventy years only to awaken to find the old man's grandchildren
feasting on the carob from his tree. Trees are a powerful symbol that
what we plant today will bear fruit in future generation. And that applies
as much to the tree of life as it does to fruit trees.
not surprising, then, that trees would become so important to the Jewish
people. Trees are a symbol of hope and illumination - even the Torah
is referred to as a "tree of life." When we plant seeds or
seedlings we plant hope. We prepare for the next generation. We must
make this effort not only physically but spiritually by planting the
seeds of the tree of life, our Torah to future generations.
I end this morning, I feel that I must mention one more symbolic "tree"
that symbolizes the special nature of this week. A few days ago the
Shuttle took off for a sixteen day mission with Elan Ramon, the son
of Holocaust survivor and the first representative of the state of Israel
to visit outer space. Elan's first name means tree (we call Tu Bishvat
Hag Ha-elan-ot.) Is it only a coincidence that his space mission is
taking place this week? Although Elan does not consider himself a religious
Jew he is most definitely a proud Jew - he went to great trouble to
make sure that he would have kosher food on his mission and he has announced
that he plans to mark the Sabbath while circling the earth. No doubt
as he looks down at the earth he'll be able to see the lush green that
now covers the state of Israel - a product of our efforts as a people
to replenish the land of Israel.
in the face of a dark and sometimes dismal times in which we are living,
when we live in fear of war and destruction, maybe we can find a some
reason for hope. If we can plant a tree today, maybe there is still
reason to believe that we can assure the future for our children and
we should remember what the Talmud says: "If you are planting a
tree and someone tells you that the Messiah has come, first finish planting
the tree and then follow the Messiah." As long as we can plant
trees there will be seeds of hope for the future!