This evening is the start of Tu b’Shvat: watch Rabbi Botnick explain the mystical meaning of the Tu b’Shvat Seder:
This month, we celebrate the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, which is known as the New Year of Trees. In Judaism, we’re not allowed to eat the fruit of a tree in its ﬁrst three years, so rather than trying to remember exactly when we planted a tree, we can use Tu B’Shevat to mark its birthday. Whether you plant a tree 10 days before Tu B’Shevat or 10 months before, either way – according to our tradition – that tree will turn one on Tu B’Shevat.
Tu B’Shevat is often marked by planting trees or engaging in other eco-friendly activities. While these customs are beautiful and meaningful, I’d rather focus on the deeper symbolism of the day.
Trees are mentioned throughout our tradition for many reasons, one of which is to compare them to people. The rabbis teach that just as a tree with strong roots can withstand the most powerful winds, so too a person with a strong foundation can withstand any challenge. But what are the metaphoric roots that provide us with this stability?
One of the strongest foundations we enjoy is our tradition – our holidays, rituals and literature. For instance, by celebrating Shabbat and holidays with family and friends, we are able to pause to reﬂect on our lives and to connect with those we love. This fortiﬁes us, allowing us to stand strong in the face of adversity.
Another way to understand our metaphoric roots is provided by the rabbis in Pirkei Avot (3:17), where it says, ‘A person who possesses great wisdom, but lacks good deeds, is like a tree with many branches, but few roots: a light wind can easily uproot it.’ In other words, if you spend all your time and energy advancing yourself (for intellectual or material gain) and not helping others, then you’ll be left vulnerable when trouble comes your way. However, if a plant roots in the fertile soils of community, you will withstand the strongest of winds.
I want to propose that this month we take the opportunity to consider how we would like to plant our own roots. For you and your family, that might be celebrating more Shabbat or holiday meals together, or even introducing one or two new traditions. Or you might want to think of ways to volunteer and support the wider community. You could even strengthen your foundation in the Jewish tradition by watching our Taste of Torah videos or attending an adult education class or discussion.
No matter how you choose to plant your roots this year, I want to encourage you to take small, gradual steps toward growth. It is better to make one small commitment and see it through than to take on too much and have to give up. Try to ﬁnd the one thing that will help you grow and strengthen your roots in the coming year. After all, it takes a long time and a lot of patience for a sapling to become a mighty oak or a towering cedar.
Rabbi Gabriel Botnick