Tu B’Shvat: The Giving Tree
This coming Sunday evening and Monday is Tu B’Shvat. According to Jewish tradition, it is the Rosh HaShanah, the New Year for Trees. There was a practical reason for trees to have their own designated New Year. As the late Rabbi Kalman Packouz zt”l wrote in his weekly Shabbat Shalom on the topic:
In the times of the Temple in Jerusalem, it was used for calculating the tithing year for the fruits of trees. The Talmud tells us that trees stop absorbing water from the ground and instead draw nourishment from their sap on this date. How do we celebrate Tu B’Shvat? We eat fruit — especially the fruits for which the Torah praises the Land of Israel: “A land of wheat and barley and vines (grapes) and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey … and you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deut. 8:8-10).
Trees played a central role in the Torah right from the outset in the Creation narrative. The story of Creation names the Tree of Life as an integral part of the Garden of Eden along with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The lives and destiny of the very first humans, Adam and Eve, became inextricably connected to the latter when they ate its forbidden fruit. Their downfall came from partaking of the one tree they were supposed to keep away from. They were subsequently booted from the Garden of Paradise – a place defined by trees.
It is no accident that trees have a starring role in this seminal episode of history, for if there is anything that defines the very purpose and raison d’être of Creation, it would be Trees. One of the most basic notions of God’s creation of the world is that it was an act of total giving on God’s part since God doesn’t really need anything. God didn’t create the world because He was bored or wanted some puny humans to praise Him.
As Jewish philosophers from Maimonides on out all explain, if the universe were to revert back to nothingness, the way it was before Creation, God would still be the same. He does not lack anything, being Infinite, Whole and Perfect. Hence, Creation was a one-way street of giving by God to us. This is what the Talmud means when it declares, עולם חסד יבנה The World is built on Chessed – Giving.
Giving defines Creation more than anything else, and Trees define Giving more than anything else.
As children we may have been exposed to this idea from the beautiful and moving book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. (The impact of this book was made evident to me when I once mentioned it and Avital, then 14 years old, began to recite pages of it off by heart.) The book follows the lives of a boy and his apple tree. In his childhood the boy enjoys playing with the tree, climbing her trunk, swinging from her branches, and eating her apples. However, as the boy grows older and his interests mature, he spends less time with the tree and tends to visit her only when he needs something from her at various stages of his life. In an effort to make the boy happy at each of these periods, the tree gives him parts of herself, which he can transform into material things.
She provides apples that he can sell so he can make money as a young man. She provides her branches that he can build into a house when he is older and needs to provide for a family. She tells him to cut her trunk to make a boat when he hits middle-age and wishes to escape. With every act of giving, “the Tree was happy”.
However, after this she doesn’t see the boy for many many years until he finally reappears as an elderly, tired old man. But by that time the tree no longer has anything to give, for all that remains is her stump. But the boy tell her that all he wants is “a quiet place to sit and rest.” And that is the one thing the tree can still give. And so the boy sits quietly down on her stump, and in that simple moment, both of them were happy.
Giving and Taking define who we are more than anything else. Giving and Taking are essential to develop any relationship. But we always need to find the proper balance between the two. On the one hand we cannot just be a Taker and thereby not create any independence for ourselves. On the other hand, by giving too much away of ourselves we may lose the very definition of who and what we are, as the sad tree did in the story for much of her life.
So it’s noteworthy that the reason the Talmud mentions Tu B’Shvat as the date designated as the New Year for Trees is because on that day the trees stop absorbing water from the ground and instead draw nourishment from their sap. In essence, on Tu B’Shvat trees become self-sufficient, so to speak, and no longer depend on the soil. They spent the necessary time Taking and are now at a stage where they are sufficiently able to develop fruit to Give. And this is what the tree does until there is no more to give, and they are left alone for some time until they can do it all over again next year. The same cycle of Taking and Giving once again.
So let’s learn from the beloved Tree. Take when we need, give when we can and give of whatever we may have – even if it’s merely a stump of what we used to be. And thereby reap the happiness and joy inherent in Giving. עולם חסד יבנה The World was built on Giving.
She’s my knotty pine
Such a pretty scene, she tries to be kind
She gives birds a home and shelters them
In her coat of green
She’s as green as evergreen can be
She’s knotty but wise
She holds her anger in, trees are her disguise
Cones are taking root before my eyes
Find them if you can
Among her boughs she keeps them out of sight