This week's Torah portion, also known as Shabbat Shira (the Sabbath of Song) since it features the song of the Israelites at the splitting of the Reed (Red) Sea, always falls very close to the semi-festival of Tu Bishvat, known as the New Year for Trees. This 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat (which starts in the evening of February 2) signals the time when the majority of the year's rain has fallen, and when the almond trees have begun to sprout their white and pink flowers.
In honor of this festival, we become involved with the annual planting of fruit trees. In addition, we generally celebrate Tu Bishvat with a special "seder" featuring four cups of wine and a wide variety of fruits, particularly the "seven species" indigenous to our land - wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates, for which the land is specifically praised (Deut. 8:7-9). Since fruits play a major role in our celebrations, it would be interesting to identify what kind of message they might represent.
We have already noted that our biblical text praises the land in large measure because of its luscious fruits: "The Lord your God is bringing you to a good land... of wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates, a land of oil - olives and honey dates. You must therefore bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you" (Deut. 8:7-10).
Nevertheless, when Moses prays to enter the Promised Land at the end of his life, Rabbi Simlai comments: "Why did Moses desire to enter the Land of Israel? Did he find it necessary to eat from its fruit? Did he find it necessary to be sated with its goodness? Certainly not! But this was Moses's desire: There are many commandments which can be fulfilled only in the Land of Israel. I wish to enter the land in order that I may fulfill all of them..." (B.T. Sota 14a). Our sage seems to be denigrating the idea that our desire for Israel be predicated on the quality of its fruit; it can only be predicated on the special commandments and unique service which is only possible here.
This is likewise the opinion of the 14th-century religio-legal codifier Rabbenu Ya'acov Ba'al Haturim, who rules that we are to delete the concluding words of the blessing recited after eating any of the five species for which Israel is praised: "Have mercy, Lord our God, upon Israel Your nation and upon Jerusalem Your city... so that we may rejoice in its rebuilding, eat of its fruit and be sated with its goodness... We thank you for the land and its fruit..."
He argues, "These words are not to be said, for we are not to desire the land because of the good quality of its fruit, but rather because of the commandments dependent on the land" (Tur Orah Haim Siman 208).
One of the major commentaries on the Tur, Rabbi Yoel Sirkes (known as the Bach), strongly disagrees, posing the rhetorical question to all those who undermine the act of eating the fruit of the land: "Is it not true that the sanctity of the Land of Israel, which draws its nourishment from the sanctity of the Divine Presence 'who dwells in the midst of the land,' has a unique effect on the fruits which emerge?... therefore it is proper that we include in the blessing 'so that we may... eat of its fruit and be sated with its goodness,' because in the eating of its fruit we shall be nourished by the sanctity of the Divine Presence, and sated by its goodness."
What is really the source of the unique quality of the land and its fruits? After the flood, God makes a clear division between the behavior of people and the fertility of the land: "...I will no longer curse the land because of the people, because the nature of the heart of man is evil from his very beginnings..." (Genesis 8:19). But the one spot where there's still a correlation between the morality of the inhabitants and the fertility of the land is Israel. We even recite in the second paragraph of the Shema that the produce of Israel is dependent on the comportment of its inhabitants, and the Bible iterates and reiterates that our right to remain on our land - and benefit from its produce - depends on our morality and piety.
Hence our ability to eat the fruit of Israel is a direct result of our worthiness; our desire to eat it is tantamount to a desire to be worthy children of God.
Herein lies the true message of Tu Bishvat - our desire to enjoy the fruits of Israel.
In many ways the song the Israelites sang at the splitting of the Reed Sea is also appropriate for watching the splitting of newly planted seeds. Both are divine miracles worthy of praise. It is indeed providential that these two occasions, the historic event at the Reed Sea and the new year of fruits, fall so closely together. The symbolism, and the connection, could not be clearer.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.