There are multiple places in the Bible in which humans are compared to trees. In Deuteronomy 20:19, for example, the Torah asks, “Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” While this understanding seems to imply that humans and trees are not alike, the sages understand the Hebrew words of this verse homiletically to mean that humans are like trees of the field. Based on this comparison, we can draw a beautiful and profound parallel between the growth of trees and the spiritual and personal development of individuals. This comparison is particularly resonant during the celebration of Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, known as the New Year for Trees.
Tu B’Shevat marks a pivotal moment in the agricultural calendar, especially in the Land of Israel where it signifies the start of a new year for tithing purposes. The fruits that blossom before Tu B’Shevat belong to the previous year, while those that blossom after Tu B’Shevat belong to the new year. However, the significance of this day extends far beyond these agricultural practices, reflecting deeper spiritual truths and lessons.
Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum points out that the life cycle of a tree is one of constant renewal and transformation. After a period of abundance in the summer, a tree gradually sheds its fruits and leaves, entering a phase of apparent dormancy during the winter. During these months, the tree seems barren, bereft of all of its fruits and leaves. Though at this stage it appears as if the tree has died, beneath the surface a process is in motion for the tree’s rejuvenation. Unseen to the eye, the sap within the tree begins to stir as Tu B’Shevat approaches, signaling the onset of new growth and the promise of renewal.
This natural cycle of trees offers a powerful metaphor for human experiences. We, much like trees, go through our own cycles of growth, stagnation and renewal. There are times when we feel as if we are in a winter phase, feeling unaccomplished, stripped of achievement, down and defeated. However, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe reassures us that these periods of stillness are not empty; rather, just like the winter is the precursor for the growth of the trees, we can use these times in our lives to gather our strength for the next phase of growth.
The message of Tu B’Shevat is one of hope and faith in our innate potential for renewal. It reminds us that periods of inactivity or stagnation are precursors to times of flourishing and achievement. Just as the sap stirs silently within the tree during the cold winter days, so does our inner potential quietly gather strength, preparing to propel us towards new heights and aspirations.
Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr introduces another layer to this metaphor, highlighting the difference between trees and annual plants. Trees, when tended to properly, produce fruits each year without the need for reseeding, symbolizing the potential for continual growth built upon the foundations of past experiences and achievements. In contrast, annual plants must be replanted each year, starting anew. This distinction emphasizes the importance of maintenance and care in our own lives, reminding us that, like a tree, with proper nurturing, we can build upon our past accomplishments and continually strive to reach greater heights.
Tu B’Shevat, therefore, transcends its agricultural roots, blossoming into a period of introspection and inspiration. It encourages us to recognize our own cycles of growth, to nurture our inner potential, and to continuously aim upwards, towards personal and spiritual development. In the cycle of the seasons and the growth of trees, we find a mirror to our own lives, reminding us of our resilience, our potential for renewal, and our ever-present capacity to grow and thrive.
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