Spreading Branches, Bearing Fruit

From: Ariel in NY

Dear Rabbi,

Tu b’shevat is coming and it has always had a special place in my heart, thanking G‑d for fruits and trees. But I realize that I don’t know much about the spiritual side of the day. I know that it is the “Rosh Hashana” for trees, but this seems to be more of a physical understanding. What is the spiritual meaning?

Dear Ariel,

The winter months are a time when in most places it is cold, rainy or snowy. Most people limit activities that are generally outside the home and direct their focus inward. For example, studying, strengthening relationships, developing latent talents or pursuing hobbies. It is a time when we all naturally undergo some degree of hibernation from physical activity, and “dig-in” to weather the long winter.

The Torah compares a person to a tree, “For man is a tree of the field” (Deut. 20:19). At the onset of winter a tree sheds its leaves and branches, diminishing its influence in the outer surroundings, and strikes its roots deep into the soil. On the one hand this is in order to withstand the coming inclement weather, and on the other hand to be able to soak up as much water as possible from the rain-soaked earth. So too, during winter a person should retract from external interaction with his environment and should strike roots in spiritual soil.

For a Jew, this means making sure one is firmly rooted in some mode of Torah learning: a yeshiva, seminary, shul, or regular Torah class. This connection will ensure that one “weathers” any “inclement weather” that naturally arises in the course of the winter and will enable one to soak up as much Torah as possible during this season so auspicious for spirituality.

In the Land of Israel, a majority of the winter’s rain has fallen by Tu b’Shevat. This day marks, then, the turning point from hibernation to rejuvenation. From this point on, the trees begin to realize the life potential they absorbed over the winter, first slowly stretching out and eventually bursting forth with color, fragrance and taste – leaf, blossom and fruit – into spring and summer. So too, by this time, we should have internalized and renewed much Torah and spirituality and we should be preparing and planning how to realize, express and share this energy pleasantly and productively with our surroundings during the coming spring and summer months of action and activity.

In this way, we glean another meaning of the verse, “Those who sow in tears, with rejoicing shall they reap” (Psalms 126:5). Meaning, those who sow the seeds of Torah and spirituality during the winter months of rain will reap the benefits of their efforts in the summer months of harvest, as they rejoice and gladden others with their pleasant, fragrant and luscious spiritually-laden boughs of Torah.

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