The Weekly Commentary of JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning
Exodus 13:17 - 17:16
February 7, 2004 15 Shevat 5764
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun, JTS Rabbinic Fellow.
This year, Tu Bishvat takes on new meaning for me as I eagerly await the birth of my first child. During my pregnancy, I received an unusual gift from one of my students. It was a bag of soil, an empty pot, and the bulb of a flowering plant. Years of studying Bible, Talmud, Jewish law and history at The Jewish Theological Seminary had not prepared me for my task - planting, nourishing and keeping alive this little flower. How much dirt do I need? How much water should I add? Where shall I place it in my house to receive the proper sunlight? Of course, I immediately understood my student's wise analogy. Any new parent approaches parenthood with similar insecurities about the daunting role of shepherding a new life through the world. As I celebrate this Shabbat Tu Bishvat, a few weeks away from my due date, I am struck by the deep connection in our tradition between planting trees and nurturing human life.
A famous parable in the Talmud teaches this very lesson. "One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, 'How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?' The man replied, 'Seventy years.' Honi then further asked him, 'Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?' The man replied, 'Just as I found the world full of carob trees planted by my parents and grandparents, so will I plant for my children'" (Ta'anit 23a).
As parents, we can establish roots for our children. We can tend to our saplings and watch them grow. However, we may never see the fruit of their grown branches. We can only hope for the blessing of seeing our children blossom. This dream gave rise to a beautiful birthing custom in the rabbinic period. According to the Talmud, when a boy was born, it was customary to plant a cedar tree. When a girl was born, a pine tree was planted. When they married, branches from each tree were woven together to form their wedding canopy (Gittin 57a).
Tu Bishvat is the celebration of the New Year of Trees. It marks the turning point from the bitterness of winter to the hint of spring. In Eretz Yisrael, this is the time of year when the buds are just beginning to form. We rejoice in the annual blooming of trees. It is also the time for planting new trees. We hope and plan for the future of a fertile and prosperous land. Many of us are removed from this world of agriculture. However, Tu Bishvat serves as a yearly reminder of our connection to the land, our responsibilities as stewards of the natural world, and our own human resemblance to the trees of life around us.
After God created Adam, "God planted a garden in Eden ... and God made to grow from the ground all sorts of trees, pleasant to look at and good for eating" (Genesis 2:8). Then God placed man in the garden "to till it and tend it" (v. 15). Perhaps, like my wise student, God ordained that the invaluable lessons of cultivating trees prepare man for the sacred task of fostering human life. Tu Bishvat is a day in which our faith is renewed in the cycle of life. Despite the barrenness of winter, new buds are forming once again. Tu Bishvat is a day in which we place our faith in the delicate laws of nature. We plant new trees, even though we may never see them grow to maturity. The annual cycle of the Jewish calendar reflects the divine promise in the possibilities of life. Tu Bishvat affirms our greatest blessing as human partners with God to serve as creators of life in this world. May we be worthy of our role, and may we tend our gardens well.
Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun