Shvat: A Time to Grow

Nov 24, 2014
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by Shprintzee Herskowitz, Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya

Not many people appreciate the importance of the month of Shvat. Shvat is most known for the fifteenth day of the month called “Tu B’Shvat” or the “tree holiday”.Unfortunately, since we are not much of an agricultural society today, the significance of trees, and thus the month of Shvat, is lost on us. But now more than ever, it is crucial that Jews all over the world tune in to the message inherent in this month.

When you think about it, Man has always had a close association with trees. The job of first man was to (Genesis 2:15) “Work and watch over the Garden of Eden,” – a garden full of trees. The first Mitzvah given to Man involved trees: (Genesis 2:16-17) “From all the trees in the field you shall eat. And from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you shall not eat”. The first thing Noach did after the world was destroyed was to plant.But the most obvious connection between Man and trees is the Torah’s statement (Devarim 20:19), “Man is the tree of field.” What exactly does that mean?

According to the Midrash on Sefer Bereishit, Adam was created from the dust of the Earth. Perhaps this is why the Gemara (Yevamot 63) says “Adam she’ayn lo karka, ayno Adam – Man without land is not Man.” It is probably this statement which gave Arnold Toynbee the idea that a nation without land is not a nation. But long before Toynbee said it, we learned this idea from Avraham. At one point, Hashem tells Avraham (Genesis 12:1-2) “Go from your land, your place of birth, to the Land that I will show you (Eretz Yisrael). And I will make you into a great nation”. Avraham could only go to Eretz Yisrael in order to be made into a great nation. Hashem implies that Avraham needed to further evolve spiritually in order to be the progenitor of the Jewish nation. For this, Avraham needed the type of soil that would be conducive to his spiritual growth as a Jew. In Galut, depending on which land you are “planted”, you grow as an American, Canadian, Englishman, South African, etc. In Eretz Yisrael, you grow as a Jew.

Ramchal (R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato) compares Avraham to a tree and says (“Derech Hashem” Section II, Chapter 4:3) “Avraham succeeded in elevating himself and was therefore permanently made into a superior tree, conforming to Man’s highest level”.Ramchal notes that every individual has the potential to be either a branch or a root of a tree. A branch is a person who continues what his forefathers did and does not significantly change his future descendants via his actions. A root is an individual who, as a result of his actions, significantly affects his future descendants and thus creates an entirely new tree. Examples of root individuals are converts, Baalei Teshuvah and people who make Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. These people significantly affect their future descendants, putting them on a new, much higher, tree.

Chazal equate the cutting down of a tree to the soul leaving the body. In Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer it says “When a tree is cut down, its voice goes from one end of the world to the other, but no one hears it. The same is true when a soul leaves a body”. In Sefer Kohelet (Ecclesiastes, 3:2) Shlomo HaMelech writes, “There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot planting.” Why does Shlomo follow the concept of death with that of planting?

It is interesting that people do not cry when a seed is planted in the ground, even though it decomposes and dies. The reason is because we know something better comes after the seed’s “death”- namely, the tree. Rav Nachman Kahana, shlita, once noted, “It is interesting that even though we all know we will die one day, that knowledge does not overwhelm us so much that we are unable to get out of bed in the morning.The reason why is because deep down, we know that there is something much better waiting for us after death. Our soul knows it.”

Trees produce fruit. Man produces children. It can be no coincidence that the Torah refers to having children as “P’ru Urvu–being FRUITful and multiplying”, just as it is no coincidence that the Torah refers to children as “Zera–seed”. Interestingly, the Gemara (Yoma 20) says that if a person cuts down fruit trees, there is a danger of his children dying. Why must we be so careful with trees? Perhaps it is to teach us that just as trees produce good and thus benefit the world, Man was put on this Earth to produce good and thus benefit the world. One of the ways Man does this is by having children.

The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 10:6) says that everything in nature (including trees) has an angel who hits it and says, “Grow.” As to why nature must be hit in order to grow, the Rabbis say that where there is no challenge, there is no growth. Today, the Jewish nation is being hit and faces a serious challenge to its growth. As to what can save us, once again we look to a tree. The Torah is called an “Etz Chaim—Tree of Life”. If we learn Torah, we grow. If we do not learn Torah, we get hit.

Regarding the month of Shvat, R. Avraham Issac Kook writes (in “Meged Yerachim”), “The planting of fruit trees on holy ground will sprout the hope for many generations.”Based on what we’ve said, the “planting of fruit trees” would refer to producing and raising Torah-observant children. “On holy ground” means doing this in Eretz Yisrael.The “sprouting of hope” refers to Moshiach, described by the prophet Zechariah (2:7-8) as “the sprouting plant”. Putting all of this together, R. Kook is saying, “Only if we raise Torah-observant children who have a love for Eretz Yisrael, can we hope to see the coming of Moshiach and thus survive for many generations to come”. This is the message of the month of Shvat.

May Hashem plant this seed in the heads of Jews all over the world.

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