Strong Roots, Strong Tree

ALSO CALLED “ROSH HASHANAH LA’ILANOT,” LITERALLY “NEW YEAR OF THE TREES,” IN CONTEMPORARY ISRAEL TU B’SHEVAT IS ARBOR DAY TO MOST, AN ECOLOGICAL AWARENESS DAY IN WHICH TREES ARE PLANTED IN CELEBRATION. HOWEVER, THERE IS MORE TO TU B’SHEVAT THAT MEETS THE EYE.

By Rabbi Raphael Tennenhaus

Tu B’ Shevat, the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat, is the New Year for Trees. In Israel, the rainy season starts four months earlier and the saturation of the water in the ground takes this amount of time for the trees to revitalize. Hence, on Tu B’Shevat, the trees begin their New Year.

Halachic significance of this date includes the beginning of the calendar year for the tithing of fruit. Customs associated with Tu B’Shevat include eating fruit that the land of Israel is especially blessed with, such as grapes, olives, dates, figs and pomegranates; eating a new fruit and saying the blessing “Shehecheyanu’’, and eating a carob. Rabbi Isaac Luria ate fifteen fruit on this day, and one of his students created a “Tu B’Shevat Seder.”

One of the most central themes of this holiday is the message that “man is likened to a tree” (Deuteronomy 20:19). Every part of creation and the world is most significant to us, primarily because they all teach us something in our service to Hashem. The Mishnah in Avot (5:20) teaches us that Yehudah ben Teima says, “Be bold as a leopard, swift as an eagle, fleet as a deer and strong as a lion, to fulfill the will of your Father in Heaven.”

The Code of Jewish Law begins with this teaching, and expounds how we learn from these animals how to wake up each day, and serve G-d with the special qualities these animals possess. Surely there are other uses for these animals, and all animals for that matter. Besides enjoying them on a family trip to the zoo and how they add to the multitude of G-d’s creations, many animals, and research done with them, has assisted in discovering medicines for the benefit of man. Nonetheless, the primary purpose of these animals is to teach us how to serve G-d and how to serve G-d every day.

The same can be said about the tree. Many are the benefits of trees, such as the fruits of trees and much more. However, the most important lesson and benefit we get from a tree is how it reminds us, and teaches us, how to serve G-d each day.

The Torah, comparing man to a tree, contains numerous lessons associated with the Chinuch, Jewish education of Jewish boys and girls. Some of the lessons include: 1) A tree needs strong roots. The stronger and healthier the roots are, the stronger and healthier the tree is. When parents are strong “roots” for their young children, anchoring their home with the love of Torah and Mitzvoth, the children will grow strong and healthy in their love for Torah and Mitzvoth. 2) A young tree needs much individualized nurturing. So too, young children need constant nurturing in their growth in Torah and Mitzvoth. Strong roots are important, but one cannot rely on roots alone. The young children require personalized daily attention so that their growth is commensurate with their unique talents, sensitivities, intellect, and character traits. 3) The ideal tree produces fruit. When Moshiach soon comes, even non fruit-bearing trees will produce fruit. A key part of Chinuch, or Jewish education, is to produce children who like fruit-bearing trees, who are constantly aware, and involved in doing good deeds, which is the equivalent of bearing healthy fruit.

When parents are strong “roots” for their young children, anchoring their home with the love of Torah and Mitzvoth, the children will grow strong and healthy in their love for Torah and Mitzvoth.

This past Simchat Torah, my mother, z’’l, passed away. A survivor of the Holocaust who barely made it to safe shores, being rescued on the final Kindertransport to England, she was blessed with one of the most incredible Jewish upbringings and Chinuch I am familiar with. Her childhood memories, which she shared with us, always revolved around a Jewish Holiday, a Torah teaching she learned, or a blessing she received from her grandfather, who knew the entire Talmud by heart.

On the Shabbat, in the month of Nissan, before she left Germany as a young fifteen year old teenager, her father, after who I’m named, took her to the Botanical Gardens and made the blessing with her which one recites when one sees the blossoming of new fruit on a tree. He did this with her every year, but that year, this blessing surely made its biggest impact on this young girl who would never see her parents again when she boarded the boat several days later.

Her parents thought that the foster home in London where my mother stayed for three years, until she was 18 and could legally live on her own, was kosher. Shortly after her arrival to this home, she found out it wasn’t kosher. This fifteen year old child, cut off from her parents, friends and religious community, simply never ate chicken or meat that was offered to her by her foster parents for three consecutive years!

Where did she get the strength to withstand the peer pressure? How did she have the courage for such self sacrifice at such a tender age in such a dark period of our history? Is there one concrete answer to what gives a young teenager the will power in the house of strangers, in a foreign land, during wartime when bombs were constantly falling on London, to “just say no” to treif (non-kosher food)? The only answer I have is the remarkable Chinuch she received at home.

This Tu B’Shevat, let’s resolve not to compromise one iota on the Chinuch, the Jewish education of our children.  a

This article is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Chana bat Harav Refoel Reuven, z’’l.

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