By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
While this verse comes from Devarim 20:19, it is relevant to us, TODAY, as we celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees!
But in looking outside (and what a view we have on the east side of our synagogue!), it always strikes me that we celebrate this holiday in the midst of winter, when, other than snow and cold, nature seems to have pressed the pause button.
The Gemara wonders the same thing and answers the question: What’s happening in nature at this time of year? A Talmudic response is as follows: R. Elazar said that R. Oshaya said: This is when most of the rains have passed, even though most of the winter season is still ahead.
This leads to yet another question: What does being halfway through the rainy season matter if winter isn’t over yet? Rashi explains that this is the time when sap is rising inside the trees. While fruit is not yet emerging, the roots and trunks are starting to pull water up to the branches, and that eventually will make fruit begin to appear.
So what’s important about sap rising inside of trees? Why is it important to celebrate something that we cannot see or measure on the outside? Why is something as quiet and unnoticeable as the sap rising inside the trees important enough to mark the beginning of the year for fruit?
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Eiger, from 19th century Eastern Europe, in his commentary, Imrei Emet, suggests that the sap rising quietly in trees represents an important idea about salvation and teaches us that Tu Bishvat may be more significant than we might have thought:
When it came to Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt), that salvation began to awaken on Tu Bishvat, and became visible in the month of Nissan.
It’s like the way trees work – you only plant them once, but then they bloom every year on their own. Even though all the leaves die and the trees dry up every winter, their inner freshness never stops…
That’s why the Torah says “people are like trees (Dev. 20:19)” – this is God’s way of telling us to never give up. Even if you experience a kind of failing, this is just the same as how trees sometimes dry up, but even so they eventually grow fruit when the time is right. A person should always remember this idea: that it’s on Tu Bishvat that Yetziyat Mitzrayim is already awakening.
Trees can give up hope when things are going badly. We know and see that in the winter, tree leaves die and fall off, and it’s hard to tell whether the trees are dead or alive. But the amazing thing is that, even then, the tree might already be starting the process of regrowth – even though it’s impossible to see it from the outside!
This is ultimately how Tu Bishvat connects to Pesah – it’s the time when the miracle of being saved was already secretly beginning. And this holiday always falls during the week when we read Parshat Beshallach, during which we read and re-experience the miracle of Kriyat Yam Suf, the splitting of the sea in the famous Shirat HaYam, the song of the sea. That first Pesach started during the physical and emotional journey from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light. Our ancestors were each like trees, Ki haadam eitz hasadeh. In that moment, they were changing inside as individuals throughout their journey. And in every moment, we are each changing, growing in ways we can recognize on the outside, as well as changing on the inside in emotion and character.
May we all discover new things about ourselves on this journey from winter to spring. Perhaps that figurative “sap” rising within each of us this winter will inspire us in new and unexpected ways in the months to come.
Tu Bishvat Sameach!!