Winter? What a Strange Time to Celebrate the Trees!
In America, Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday of April, a time at which the trees are in full bloom and worth celebrating. Jewish tradition, on the other hand, marks Tu B’Shvat, the “New Year of the Trees”, on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shvat (this year, January 21st), a day that falls out each and every year in the middle of the winter. How strange!
Hillel and Shammai, two of the Talmud’s greatest masters, explain that we mark the holiday of trees at this point of the year because normally the majority of the winter’s rains have already fallen, and “the sap begins to rise in the trees”. In other words, tradition celebrates the trees, not at the time of their full bloom, but at the time when they begin to grow again.
It’s truly fascinating that we celebrate the trees not only at a time when they have no fruits, but when even their leaves have fallen and they are completely barren. Hidden in this is the very essential notion that real growth – growth worth celebrating – happens slowly and quietly, in the dark and cold winter. People also grow this way, through hard work and facing the adversity of difficult conditions. In fact, it’s this process that’s worth celebrating even more than the results. Because the hard work is what really builds us, and that’s worthy of celebration.
“You can count the seeds in an apple, but you can’t count the apples in a seed…”
If we dig just a little deeper, we can see that the difference between a tree in winter and a tree in spring is really the difference between infinity and finitude. When the rains have fallen and the sap begins to rise in the trees, our trees are at a point of infinity. Who knows how many fruits will come from that rain? Who knows how many trees will be planted from those fruits and how many more fruits will come from them? Sure, the tree has no fruits in the middle of winter, but it’s absorbing the rain, and the rain’s fruits are truly unlimited.
When spring comes, the same infinity exists, but the beautiful leaves, flowers, and fruits focus our minds on the here and now, and in their beauty, in their tastes, and in their smells, we lose sight of the infinity.
Every creative process of any kind is a combination of inspiration and process. In inspiration, there is infinity. At some moment in time, Beethoven thought “Hey, I’d like to compose music…” At some split second, Gandhi dreamed for the first time of a free India… and infinite impact and accomplishment lay in those moments. But, infinite inspiration must always be followed by process, its finite partner. The inspiration can be turned into accomplishment through the step-by-step process that takes hard work and a long time.
So, sure, Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish “New Year of the Trees”, is in the middle of the winter. But, it marks the moment when we can celebrate infinite potential, and the finite process that we will need to get us there… anywhere… It’s worth celebrating the world’s potential, and it’s worth celebrating the growth that we can each experience as we work hard to get us there.
Happy Tu B’Shvat!
Rabbi Gidon Shoshan
Rabbi Gidon Shoshan assists the North American Regional Director in overseeing Olami’s vast community of students and organizations in the US and Canada. Rabbi Shoshan’s keen eye for maximizing things helped earn him Harvard University’s Leadership in Education Award in 2012, and he integrates his professional education, his studies at the world’s top yeshivot, and his big heart to help make Olami better and better.