Thursday, January 24, 2013

Happy Tu B'Shvat!

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”

This Shabbat, we are celebrating the truly Israeli holiday of Tu B'Shvat, which actually means the 15th day of the month of Shvat. It's amazing how many Israelis have never actually realized that the holiday's name is actually a date (no pun intended).

Tu B'Shvat is the 'birthday' of trees. Actually, in biblical times it was the beginning of a tax year on fruits, when the farmers had to bring one tenth of their yearly produce to the Temple. In modern Israel, because there is no Temple (yet) and the Kohanim work as bank managers clerks and teachers and gas station attendants, Tu B'Shvat is celebrated by eating dried imported fruit. I'm a little fuzzy on the reasoning behind this. One is supposed to eat of the seven fruits of the Land (wheat,  barley, grapes [for wine], figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates), but somehow that all got lost in the millennium
The seven fruits of the Land
Tu B'Shvat is also celebrated - and this is truly a wonderful way to celebrate - by planting trees.  Youth groups and schools, pensioners, and tourists, go out to sand dunes, parking lots, and private back gardens to plant trees given by the Jewish National Fund for the purpose. To be honest, this tree-planting is taken very seriously, with groups going to replant forests destroyed by fires, such as the Carmel Fire a few years ago. 

Israel is the only country in the world that ended the 20th century with more trees that it began the century with. 

As a child growing up in Canada, I had a lot of trouble understanding and appreciating Tu Be’shvat.  We would be given bags of inedible dried fruit and a box of California Sunshine Raisins.  We would buy leaves for 5 cents to stick on pictures of Keren Kayemet poster trees.  And we would stand outside in about 6 feet of snow and sing Hashkeidia Porachat (the almond tree is blooming).  I had never seen a shkadiea and I certainly had never seen any tree flower before June.   The Israeli teachers would explain to us about the division between Hillel and Shamai about when to observe the New Year for trees, and tell us that the 15th day of the month (Tu B’Shvat) was decided over the first day of the month (Rosh Chodesh) because by then the majority of the rain would have had fallen.  And then these Israelis would sigh.
A Winnipeg Winter
I never got it.

But then I came to Israel.  I spent my first year here as a volunteer on a kibbutz, and my main job was gardener.  With the help of Keren Kayemet, and your nickels,  I planted over 500 trees, plants and flowers, in a place where trees, plants and flowers had not been planted in a 100 generations.
And then I got it.

Man and trees have always gone together.

Adam was given the job of watching over the trees in Gan Eden.
The first thing Noach did after the flood was to plant a vineyard.

Jews and trees have always had a very special relationship.
We are told in VaYikra, “And when you shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees….”  (19:23) in other words the first thing we must do upon entering the Land before anything else is plant trees and cultivate the land.  

There are many many mitzvot associated with the Land and with trees; tithing the fruits, the prohibition of uprooting fruit trees, the Sabbatical year when nothing can be planted, the prohibition of eating of a tree during its first three years and others.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said , "If you have a planting in your hand, and someone says to you, 'Here is the Messiah' - go and plant the planting, and afterwards go to greet him. "

And it’s only in Eretz Yisrael that these mitzvoth are relevant.
Which is why I never got Tu BeShvat in Canada.

In the last hundred years, since the return of Am Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael, we have been witnesses to great miracles regarding the land. From the swamps of Emek Beit Shean to the sand dunes of Gush Katif, from the volcanic ash of the Golan to the salt flats of the Aravah, Jews have turned this country from a wasteland to a garden. And that is the miracle.
Avraham Avinu had to leave his homeland and come to Eretz Yisrael to become a great nation.   Because only in Eretz Yisrael can you grow Jews.  And only Jews can make Eretz Yisrael flourish.  The holiness of the Nation and the holiness of the Land run both ways. Jews make the land grow; the land makes the Jews grow.  How do Jews grow? By learning Torah. And by learning Torah – also known as Eitz Chaim (the Tree of Life) – we make the land strong.    

Tu B'Shvat Sameach!!

Ha'Shkeidiya Porachat