The Teachings of the Trees

On American Arbor Day, children hear about Johnny Appleseed. On the Jewish birthday of trees, known as Tu B’Shevat the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which falls this year on January 31, Israeli children sing songs to the almond tree. The universal tradition is to plant trees. So, what might we learn as we prepare for our celebration? What truths do the trees teach us?

Much like the IRS, Judaism needed to establish a date to distinguish between the harvest yield of one year and the next. In this way, a farmer knew how much to tithe from crops (think income tax meets tzedakah). After some debate, the Talmud set that date to the 15th of Shevat, a time in January/February when most of the rain for that season had fallen. The thinking was that this was the beginning of new growth on trees, and any fruit from then on was a part of the next year’s harvest totals. Even though the focus is on the rainy and growing seasons in Israel, it is a curiosity for us in America that we celebrate trees while they are still mostly bare and seemingly lifeless!

And so, we come to the first truth that we can learn from trees on Tu B’Shevat. Just because you can’t see growth or progress on the surface, don’t discount the developments hidden from view. Tree branches may still be bare, but the rain and early spring sun are stimulating growth from the roots upward. Parents, teachers and work supervisors take note—children, students and employees have individual and unique ways in which their productivity develops. The mental process of questioning and reflection may be done invisibly, but it leads to learning and understanding. Patience is required, along with the care and nurturing of human “soil and roots.”

We find our second truth from trees in the rabbinic work called Avot d’Rabi Natan. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai taught, “If you have a fruit-tree in your hands and someone says to you ‘Here is the Messiah!’ go and finish planting your fruit tree just the same, and afterwards go out and welcome the Messiah.” What a great piece of practical religious wisdom. Our local poet and tzedakah scholar Danny Siegel explained it best, “No matter what reasonable people or foaming enthusiastic youth tells you, that this messiah or that messiah is imminent, PLANT! The Messiah is in no rush. When you have planted down the last clods of dirt, and watered your pines, your cedars, your gum trees and cypresses, he will still be wherever he is supposed to be, and more than happy to admire the sapling with you. Messiahs don’t come to uproot things…” The Torah calls on us to be partners in creation and stewards of the earth.  A true messiah/leader would understand that priority. Judaism values practicality.

The first two truths from trees are universal. For the third, we need to compare the “poster tree” for Arbor Day in America and that of Tu B’Shevat in Israel. How the apple tree arrived and spread through America has become a source of wonderful stories and legends.

John Chapman was born on September 26, 1774. He became a savvy businessman and realized that if he could do the difficult work of planting orchards, he could turn them into profit. Wandering from Pennsylvania to Illinois, Chapman would cultivate sites just in time for the arrival of new settlers, selling his bounty and then moving on to new, undeveloped lands. And so, the legend of Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman was born. The Johnny Appleseed story taught to most American children highlights the value of planting and the pioneering spirit of settling the land.

In Israel, the tree at the center of Tu B’Shevat celebrations is the almond tree. A refrain from a popular song in Israel is, “the almond tree (shkeidiya) blossoms, and the golden sun shines.” Why this focus with almond trees? The answer is in the very name of the tree in Hebrew — shaked, the almond. The almond tree is the quickest of all trees to wake up after winter. It is the first to start budding, and is quickly adorned with spectacular flowers. It was therefore called shaked, diligent, which signifies its swift awakening. Shaked also means watchful, and symbolizes God’s watchfulness over the land and its people, as well as the almond tree’s watchful anticipation of spring. Its first-to-blossom character is a symbol of hope and resilience.

According to researchers at Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, the Torah’s description of the menorah (Exodus 25:31-39) incorporates botanical imagery of the almond tree. The almond tree became a substitute for the lost Tree of Life from Eden, and continues now as a Tree of Lights, a beacon of hope for a swift awakening of all that is good in the world.

So, even as we wear layers to beat the freeze, take heart. Buy some almonds, buy a seedling to start indoors, invite friends over for a party featuring apples from America and a sampling of Israeli produce (dates, figs, pomegranates, olives etc.) and be assured that if it is Tu B’Shevat, the almond trees in Israel are waking up and telling us that a redemptive spring is almost here.