For Man is (But) the Tree of the Field

The fifteenth day of the month of Shevat marks the annual celebration of the New Year of the Trees.

On this day, it is customary to partake of the various fruits of the land of Israel, to sing her praises, to plant trees, and in some communities (as in our own) to share in a communal Tu B’Shevat “Seder” in Eretz Israel. Tu B’Shevat has developed the aura of a national holiday. It is celebrated by taking a day off from work and picnicking with family and friends at the various beautiful parks and nature preserves which dot the landscape.

Yet, if we scour the classical sources of Jewish tradition, i.e., the Torah, the Talmud, or our numerous Midrashim, we would be hard put to find any of these “minhagim” or customs explicitly mentioned.

The Halacha does not require any special observances to mark the day and other than an exemption from reciting the daily Tachanun prayer (a prayer which is omitted on festive days throughout the year), it’s almost a non-event!

In all fairness to Tu B’Shevat, the day is mentioned in the Talmud and discussed at great length. The discussions devolve upon its being the demarcation day between last year’s produce and the upcoming year’s fruit, and the concomitant agricultural taxes and tithing obligations which attend to it. There is no mention of parties, picnics, or elaborate banquets, the main course of which being fruit salad and bananas.

So where did all the fuss spring from? I believe the answer can be found in a verse at the end of Deuteronomy: “For man is (but) the tree of the field” (Deut. 20:19). This uncomplicated comparison holds within it such a great many moral lessons that it is truly worth celebrating them, nay shouting them, from the highest treetops!

The tree is nature’s hardest worker. Each year, she provides us with sustenance in incredible abundance. Yet she does so with great modesty and without complaint. You will never catch a tree running around the world attempting to garner accolades for herself, pointing out the great services she provides for all mankind. The tree prefers the anonymity of the forest. She is content to stay in one place, to perform her quotidian labor at her own pace, and to unceasingly produce exquisite works of art. She shows off her beauty, but never ostentatiously. She gives domicile to all manner of living creatures, and all are welcome to cool off in her shade. She sustains the world by gathering in our exhaled CO2, and, in return, providing us with oxygen. She generally possesses a quiet demeanor, but if a tempest were to attack her, she knows how to answer in kind.

King David adds another dimension to this simile, Tzadik Katamar Yifrach.

A righteous person will flourish like a date palm,
Like a cedar in Lebanon he will grow tall,
Planted in the house of Hashem,
In the courtyards of our G-d they will flourish;
They will still be fruitful in old age,
Vigorous and fresh they will be –
To declare that Hashem is just,
My Rock, in Whom there is no wrong.

We now understand why the Torah had no need to mandate such a day as a holiday – its observance should be obvious!

Tu B’Shevat is really the celebration of the righteous man. To all appearances he is ordinary, even blemished. In reality, he is the paradigm to which all good men and women should aspire!

Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Avraham Kelman

Don’t forget to RSVP for the Tu B’Shevat Seder, 2/9!

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