Just step outside

While some need to ‘do’ something to celebrate Tu Bishvat, all we really need on the New Year for trees is to observe our surroundings.

Carob Tree 521 (photo credit: PETRA VAN DER ZANDE)
Carob Tree 521
(photo credit: PETRA VAN DER ZANDE)
Growing up in northern California and having a birthday that falls around Tu Bishvat, I’d inevitably get this birthday card: The front usually featured a cartoon of an Israeli wearing a kova tembel (pioneer hat), standing next to a small sapling. Above the picture, it read: “In honor of your birthday, a tree has been planted in Israel in your name...” And then you’d open the card, and on the inside it would say: “... Your day to water it is Thursday.”
Jewish holidays, even the minor ones, are all about “doing” something. I am reminded of Nike’s trademark slogan, “Just do it.” But what does one “do” on Tu Bishvat? The most common answers are, plant trees and eat dried fruits. I suppose many of us will sample some kind of dried fruit this Wednesday in honor of Tu Bishvat, but for most of us, our tree-planting days stopped once we got out of grade school.
Or so I thought. After I came on aliya some 15 years ago, my first job was at the Isracard company in Tel Aviv. One cold January day, our supervisor announced that the following day there was going to be a tree-planting event in honor of Tu Bishvat, organized by the HR department. She needed three volunteers from our department to go on the trip.
I looked around and saw that nobody was volunteering, so neither did I. (One of the first rules you learn in Israel, mainly from the army, is never to volunteer for anything.) So the boss picked three other people to represent our division, and we all went back to work.
As luck would have it, it rained the next day and the treeplanting trip was postponed indefinitely. Nobody was too disappointed. But then, some two months later, I walked into work a bit late one morning and was accosted at the door.
“You’re going tree-planting today!” my co-workers informed me.
“What?” I asked in disbelief.
“Tree-planting. It’s happening today. Since you came late, we volunteered you.”
So I boarded the bus along with dozens of employees from other departments. I wondered if they, too, had been “volunteered.”
The tree-planting itself was fun (as was the barbecue they made for us afterward), but one particular memory sticks with me. After the Jewish National Fund representative unveiled the sign that dubbed our section “The Isracard Forest,” he approached me, as I was the only one in the group sporting a kippa, and handed me a card. He requested that I read “The Tree Planter’s Prayer for Planting Trees in Israel.” I agreed and stood behind the JNF podium as the Isracard company photographer snapped pictures of me.
And I read the prayer in a solemn voice: “Heavenly Father... give dew for a blessing and cause beneficent rains to fall in their season.... And these saplings which we plant before thee this day, make deep their roots and wide their crown that they may blossom forth in grace amongst all the trees in Israel, for good and for beauty.... And bless this land that it may flow again with milk and honey.”
The next day, those photos appeared on the walls of the company (and in the company newsletter), causing me some embarrassment, but also a lot of pride among my coworkers who had not volunteered to participate.
AN EMOTIONAL story about tree-planting is told about Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of pre-state Israel. When the settlement of Magdiel celebrated its establishment, Rabbi Kook was invited to participate in the festivities. The ceremony included planting trees, and he was given the honor of placing the first sapling in the ground. The organizers handed the rabbi a hoe, but he threw it aside and began digging the hole with his bare hands.
Those present noticed that he suddenly became impassioned.
His entire body seemed to quiver and shake, and his face was aflame as he placed the sapling in the ground.
Afterward, people asked him why he had become so emotional.
He answered that the planting of a tree in the Land of Israel was no ordinary agricultural action, but an act of clinging to the traits of God. For God, when he created the world, also engaged in planting first, as it says, “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden” (Genesis 2:8). Similarly God exhorted the Israelites to engage in planting first when they entered the Land of Israel, as it is written, “When you shall come into the Land, and you shall plant all types of fruit trees” (Leviticus 19:23).
“When I was about to put the sapling in the ground,” Rabbi Kook explained, “I remembered these words and felt as if I was clinging to the Shechina [the divine presence].
Thus, I was overcome by fear and trembling. And how could I use a hoe or any or other object to perform this great mitzva, as there should be nothing which separates between the man and the holy land he is planting on.”
AS WONDERFUL as planting trees in Israel is, there is a simpler way to observe Tu Bishvat. It’s even simpler than eating dried fruit.
A story about Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk recounts that he asked his student Rabbi Yitzhak Meir to speak at their festive Tu Bishvat meal. Rabbi Yitzhak Meir chose to discuss the section of Talmud which teaches that Tu Bishvat is the New Year for trees, and gave a lengthy and complicated discourse on the subject.
When he finally finished, Rabbi Menachem Mendel replied, “If we were in the Land of Israel, we could just go out to the fields and look at the trees. We would then understand what ‘the New Year for trees’ really means, and we would not need scholarly learning on the subject! For there, in the land of Israel, Tu Bishvat does not say ‘darshuni’ [expound upon me], but ‘asuni’ [do it].”
Want to really experience Tu Bishvat? If you are lucky enough to live in Israel, just step outside.
The writer has an MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan University.