Why do we celebrate Tu BiShvat, the Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot, in the middle of the winter– a time when nothing is growing and the world around us descends into a deep, frost-bitten slumber?
It seems to be at the wrong time of the year. Shouldn’t the New Year for the Trees come in the spring time? Even the late summer/early autumn would kind of make sense since Tu BiShvat is celebrated by eating fruit, and that’s when many of the fruits in Israel begin to ripen on the tree.
One explanation for the timing of this holiday is hinted to in the Hebrew word for winter, חוֹרֶף (choref). Choref can also mean “youth,” “the time for the sowing of seeds,” “strength” and “prosperity.”1
It’s coming to teach us a fundamental lesson…
According to Chazal, when we celebrate Tu Bishevat, most of the winter rainfall of the new year is over (in the land of Israel) and the ground has become saturated. This causes the sap to rise from the roots– the first step in the future growth of leaves, flowers, and eventually, fruit.
From the outside it looks like nothing has changed; everything appears to be the same as it was the day before. But beneath the rough, lifeless bark, hidden from sight, there is a stirring… a silent awakening… a new life beginning to emerge that will eventually, with HaShem’s help, blossom and bear fruit.
3 Lessons of Tu BiShvat
1. In our relationship with HaShem. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that in this world it is completely impossible for us to know where we are holding in our avodas HaShem, and not knowing where one stands is one of the main tests in life.
We could have a small awakening or yearning to come closer to HaShem that suddenly comes and just as suddenly goes. It seems like nothing has changed… but because of that single moment of yearning, a gate is opened in the upper worlds. HaShem responds with a wellspring of strength, clarity and longing to break through all the blocks, fears, doubts, and confusions that prevent us from reaching our spiritual potential.
2. In our relationship with those around us. We don’t always know the impact of our actions in this world. You could try to help someone who is going through some difficulty in life. You reach out, but it seems like nothing has changed on the other person’s end. Sometimes, though, beneath the surface, you’ve actually planted the seeds that will take root and blossom at some later point. Sometimes this happens the other way around, and you are the one who is later affected.
3. In our relationship with ourselves. Sometimes we can see, hear, or experience something along the way that makes an unexpected impact or becomes “useful” later on. Sometimes many years can go by between the experience and the moment when everything suddenly falls into place and it all makes sense. And, when that “click” happens we are left with a bigger picture– a greater understanding of ourselves, HaShem, and how He runs to world.
In the end, Tu BiShvat is about emunah. It’s about believing that what we see on the surface is not always an indication of what’s happening beneath it, outside of our field of vision. It’s about believing that though we make choices in life, we’re not really in control of the outcome. What seems hopeless, lost or lifeless actually contains seeds of life.
1. See the commentary from the Ibn Ezra, Saadia Goan, and on Iyov 29:4