Both Tu BiShevat and Pesach each have their own version of a sedar. Is there any connection between these two holidays?
There is a fairly well-known custom to make a sedar on the night of Tu BiShevat where participants eat fruits in a specific order, drink four cups of wine, and read a series of mystical passages out loud. Tu BiShevat is exactly two months before the first day of Pesach, and the two sedars have several similarities. This suggests that there is some connection between these celebrations.
Where Tu BiShevat and Pesach Meet
Chazal teach that at the time of the Exodus only one fifth of the Jewish people actually left Egypt.1 The rest of the Jewish population did not have any desire to leave. According to the Midrash, these people got their wish by dying in Egypt during the plague of darkness.2
But, how can it be that so many Jews were ready to cut ties with their brethren and remain in Egypt? Were these people really so charmed by and mired in Egyptian culture?
What’s puzzling is that we know the entire Jewish nation kept themselves distinct from the Egyptians and their way of life. This lasted from the moment they arrived in Egypt till the exodus– a span of 210 years. Not only did the Jews physically live apart in Goshen, various sources point out that throughout this time they stubbornly held on to their Jewish names, language, food, style of clothing, and rejection of immorality.3 They also kept some form of Shabbos 4 when they would read from scrolls of Torah in which it was recorded that God would redeem them from Egypt.5
On top of this, they had the spiritual influence of the “three good supporters who stood up for the Jewish people,” Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam5, not to mention all of Shevet Levi. Finally, they witnessed the awesome spectacle of the plagues. Shouldn’t these Divine disruptions of the natural world have shaken and woken up any who were still in doubt over their spiritual mission and birthright?
Why did none of these factors seem to have any affect on the vast majority of the Jewish people, endowing them with enough desire and emunah to follow Hashem out of the land of Egypt???6
Something seems to be missing here.
That “something” can be found in the celebration of Tu BiShevat.
When we celebrate Tu Bishevat, most of the winter rain of the new year has already fallen, and the ground has become saturated with water. This causes the sap to rise up from the tree roots– the first step in the future growth of leaves, flowers, and eventually, fruit. This is an internal process; we can’t see it nor its affects from the outside. On Tu BiShevat and immediately after, it looks like nothing has changed.
This, however, leads us to the following question: why then is it the custom to celebrate Tu BiShevat by eating fruit? In the month of Shevat, only a limited number of fruits are in season. Not only do most fruit trees have no fruit, they don’t even have leaves. In fact, at this time in parts of Israel the leaves of the previous year have only just started falling off. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to celebrate the Rosh HaShana for the Trees with a blessing on the trees, like we say at the beginning of the month of Nissan? Perhaps we should be planting a new tree, or at least doing something to help the fruit trees grow better (that is, in non-shemita years)?
The custom to eat fruit on Tu BiShevat is there to teach us a fundamental lesson: the most important and critical quality of any action that we do in this world is not what we end up doing. What matters most are the internal thoughts and intentions we have before we’ve even lifted a finger.
The truth is… if we act, how we act, when we act, and what happens as a result, are all in Hashem’s Hands. The only area over which we have some level of control, the only thing that we can call “ours” when we leave this world, are our intentions.
For this very reason, our Sages teach that when we intend to do a mitzvah, but are prevented from following through, in the Heavenly Realms we are still credited with fulfilling mitzvah:
A good thought is regarded as a [good] deed…
Rav Assi said: Even if a person was contemplating fulfilling
a mitzvah and was unavoidably prevented from performing it,
Scripture credits him as if he fulfilled it.
But more than this. Had we actually carried out the action, it inherently would have been lacking in some way. In this case, however, it is as if we have fulfilled the mitzvah perfectly in every detail.
The message of Tu BiShevat is that our unseen intentions, are the fruits— in the most literal sense! When we act without any intention for kaddusha, then, as the Baal Shem Tov z”l taught, what we have is a body without soul, and a body without a soul is without life. When an action has even the slightest, most basic thought of kaddusha behind it (“I’m fulfilling this mitzvah because Hashem commanded me to do it”), then we breathe spiritual life into our actions which will remain with us in this world and in the next one. We also create a vessel to hold the Divine Assistance we need to keep our thoughts and actions focused on the path of emes.
Now let’s return to the Jews in Egypt.
Given what we’ve learned above, we can assume that the majority of the Jews living at the time of the Exodus maintained their distinctness by rote. They remained separate only because that’s what their parents and grandparents did, and that’s what the “Yiddishe velt” in Goshen did. They knew of nothing else… and more importantly, chose to leave it that way. Their actions, as commendable as they might have been, were nevertheless devoid of any holy intentions. As such, in the Heavenly Realms, it was as if they had done nothing at all.
A Jew who had even the slightest thought or desire to connect to Hashem, to the light of his or her soul, or to the three spiritual giants who led them, at any point before the plague of darkness, such a Jew was able to leave.
The Jews in Egypt who acted purely by habit, however, had no vessel with which to hold the Divine Light and Assistance needed to follow Hashem “into the Wilderness, into a land unsown.” (Yermiyahu 2:2)
When we sit down to eat the fruits on Tu B’Shevat, it is a favorable time to ask Hashem to help us purify our thoughts so that can connect to the core of who we are, without distraction. Then, we will be free to focus on the things that truly matter the most– in this world and the next one.
1 Rashi Shemos 13:18
2 Rashi, Shemos 10:22
3 See Pesikta Zutrata, Lekach Tov, Devarim, Ki Savo 26:5, 41a; Vayikra Rabbah, Emor 32:5
4 Shemot Rabbah (1:28) implies that the Jews kept Shabbat
5 Shemos Rabbah 5:18
6 Ta’anis 9a
7 Mechilta, Bo, Masechta D’Pischa 14 Shemot 14:31