Monday, Feb 26, 2024

A Much Needed Tu B’Shevat Is Coming

 

This coming Thursday, we will not say Tachanun (Shulchan Aruch 131:6). A number of poskim (see, for instance, Rav Ephraim Fishel Stein, Tachanun Unefillas Apayim B’Tu B’Shevat, page 22) over the centuries have expressed puzzlement over this ruling. No miracle happened on the fifteenth of Shevat, nor was our people redeemed, rescued or otherwise pleasantly surprised by an unusual phenomenon. The winter begins to recede, the sap begins to rise in the trees, and soon spring will bring new fruits for our benefit and pleasure. This would seem to be a day unlike Chanukah, Purim or any other when we celebrate salvation or deliverance. Even when we bentch Gomel following a trip, we are grateful for a successful exit from potential danger and sinister people or animals. However, Tu B’Shevat would seem to be a day following the mundane and predictable patterns of the seasons and daily life. Why cancel Tachanun and, in some circles, dress festively and sing songs of praise and gratitude to Hashem? To deepen the question, we know that we are not permitted to recite Hallel every day so that we not equate the truly miraculous with the somewhat routine schedule of weather and climate. Should we cancel Tachanun because the sun rose that day?

Indeed, the magic of Tu B’Shevat is much deeper than fruits or even the end of arctic winds and frozen lakes. First of all, we know (Devorim 20:19) that the Torah likens human beings to trees. Second of all, the novi (Yeshayahu 55:10:11) makes the analogy between the heavens irrigating the earth with its rain and Hashem penetrating our minds with His holy words. This posuk is part of the haftorah that we read every public fast day after the reading of Vayechal. On a serious day of contemplation, we are enjoined to remember that the process of understanding Hashem’s Torah is akin to the earth becoming fruitful and verdant from the heavenly gift of rain. But why celebrate this as a semi-Yom Tov?

We must begin with the mitzvah of eglah arufah, which Yaakov Avinu made sure to learn with Yosef Hatzaddik before he was submerged in the murky Egyptian exile, where we were all soon headed. The calf is beheaded in a place where nothing grows because the victim of murder will ostensibly never bear any more fruits, meaning human progeny. The Gemara (Sotah 46a) interprets fruits over here as mitzvos. Since he was prematurely removed from this world, he can no longer fulfill his Divine mandate, which is the greatest danger of all. Thus, all that grows is actually a metaphor for the spiritual growth that is granted to us and mandated by the Creator. It is well-known that the Arizal quotes the posuk (Devorim 8:3) that states, “Not by bread alone does man live; rather, by everything that emanates from the mouth of Hashem does man live.” He sees this as referring to the spirituality and even G-dliness that exist in the actual bread and all other physical food we ingest, as long as we do so with kedusha and taharah. This concept was expanded by the Baal Shem Tov in the process of turning food, eating and special meals into events of holiness and spiritual elevation. Thus, we begin to appreciate that a day commemorating the bringing of Hashem’s fruits to our table and bodies can have celestial ramifications and powerful abstruse meanings for us all.

However, there is much more to Tu B’Shevat that can also help us overcome the darkness that has descended upon us all since Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah with our brethren in the gloominess of captivity and suffering. The Toldos Aharon Rebbe, Rav Dovid Kohn (Hadeiah Vehadibbur, page 25) quotes the Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 1:2), which states that Shevat was designated as the month for the Rosh Hashanah for trees (either according to Bais Shamai on the first or Bais Hillel on the fifteenth) because from Rosh Hashanah until Shevat, the crops live and grow from the blessings of Tishrei. However, with Shevat they receive new life and a new brocha. The rebbe adds, invoking the Kedushas Levi, that we know that there is a disagreement between Rav Eliezer and Rav Yehoshua if the world was created in Nissan or Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah 27a). Since we believe that both are correct (Eiruvin 13b), the physical world was created in Tishrei, but in Nissan we were recreated as Am Yisroel. Man was physically brought into being on the 25th of Elul, but on the 25th of Adar his spiritual creation occurred, which was preceded 40 days before on the 15th of Shevat. This was the day Adam’s “spiritual sap” began to flow. Just as we left Mitzrayim only to receive the Torah (Shemos 3:12), so was Tu B’Shevat the original preparation for Mattan Torah.  Here we begin to touch the true celebration of Tu B’Shevat, which is the hachanah or preparation for man to be able to attain spiritual greatness, holiness and the ability to utilize his physical gifts for a life of complete kedusha. This is truly something to celebrate.

However, we must look still deeper. The Bnei Yissoschor (Maamorei Chodesh Shevat No. 2) famously teaches that Tu B’Shevat is the day to daven for a beautiful esrog. He derives this from the language of the Mishnah that refers to this day as “the Rosh Hashanah for the tree” in the singular, referring to the esrog tree. This, too, alerts us to the mystical importance of this day on the Jewish calendar. Rav Yitzchok Isak, the rebbe of Zidichoiv, used to distribute fruits to everyone who came to his tish on Tu B’Shevat. One year, there were many supplicants but not enough fruit, and clearly many of the Chassidim were disappointed. He quoted the Gemara (Shabbos 127a) we recite daily: “These are the mitzvos whose fruits a person enjoys in this world, but whose principal remains intact for him in the World to Come…and the study of Torah is equivalent to them all.” The rebbe concluded, “You want fruits? Go and learn Torah. You will receive an abundance of fruits, while the principal will still remain in your Olam Haba” (Sippurei Chassidim, Moadim, page 239). In Zidichoiv, the Chassidim discovered the profound meaning of the Tu B’Shevat fruits, the growth of Torah in our souls on this holy day.

So much for the world of Chassidus. However, in the world of Lithuanian mussar, Tu B’Shevat also teaches this important lesson. Rabbeinu Bachya (Chovos Halevavos) taught a crucial lesson about life. That which is not so necessary is difficult to find, but the true necessities of life are cheap or even free. Man can get along without gold and silver, so Hashem made them rare and expensive. Bread is important for life, so the Creator made it relatively cheap. We cannot live without air. G-d provides it for nothing. The Alter of Kelm added that the same holds true for ruchniyus, our spiritual needs. Since we cannot believe without emunah, the basic ability to believe Hashem made it easy if we seek to do so. The posuk tells us, “Lift up your eyes and you will see Who created all this.” I will never forget walking with Rav Mordechai Gifter, rosh yeshivas Telshe, on a beautiful starry night on the Telzer campus. He looked up, loudly and eloquently quoting the words in their original Lashon Hakodesh: Se’u marom eineichem ure’u mi bara eileh. Emunah is not expensive. All we need to do is look up and, like Rav Gifter, be inspired by the heavens themselves.

Dovid Hamelech (Tehillim 8:4) says it even more clearly elsewhere: “When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moons and the stars that You have set in place, [I think] what is frail man that You should remember him?” Dovid saw it clearly and we can too with the help of Tu B’Shevat.

Rav Moshe Rosenshein, the mashgiach of Lomza, wrote that “one of the special days when we can all achieve this closeness to Hashem through His creations is Tu B’Shevat. [Not just looking] but actually tasting His works, when we contemplate the multiplicity of His glorious works, we are like the child who receives an apple from his parents and cries out, ‘Thank you, Abba and Ima.’ This is what we can achieve on Tu B’Shevat by eating His fruits and tasting His beneficence and kindness” (Darkei Mussar, page 301).

But in this domain, we must give the Chassidim the final word. Rav Pinchos Menachem Alter, the sixth Gerrer Rebbe (whom I was privileged to meet several times), adds a crucial component. He quoted the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halacha, beginning of siman 202), which says, “The fruits of the tree were singled out for a special brocha because they are choshuv, important.” He cites the Gemara (Brachos 40a) and Shulchan Aruch (beginning of 203) that state that the difference between fruits and vegetables is that in the tree that produces true fruit, the roots last from year to year. Vegetables, however, must replanted annually. The rebbe concluded, “The Creator placed the power of continuity into the tree to produce fruits every year, although the previous season ended the crop completely. Yet, with the coming of spring, its life and ability to produce delicious edible food revives again. So, too, with man. Although we are pulled down by our evil inclination and are lowered from our glorious beginnings, our roots are deep and we rise once again, becoming the people we should be.” The rebbe (Otzar Haderushim Umaamorim, page 249) goes on to quote his ancestor, the first Gerrer Rebbe, the Chiddushei Harim, who said that “in every Jew there is embedded a point [of holiness] that is indestructible. Despite tests, difficulties and sufferings, the Jew returns once again in all his glory. This is how Chazal (Taanis 25a, Bava Basra 80b) interpret the posuk which states, “The tzaddik will flourish like a date palm, like a cedar in Lebanon he will grow tall. Planted in the house of Hashem…still be fruitful in old age” (Tehillim 92:12).

We, too, are going through a difficult period during which we don’t understand Hashem’s Hand so clearly. We are hurting and saddened by the pain of our brethren and the antipathy of the entire world. But that is the point that Tu B’Shevat shows us. Both survival and revival will return once again. Both darkness and the cold will be over and we will taste Hashem’s gifts and iy”H see with our own eyes His geulah and yeshuah bemeheirah beyomeinu.

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