Why do trees need a new year?

If we were to compare the seasons of the year to the ages of man, which age would winter represent?

“Old age,” you would say. Winter connotes the chill of rapidly receding years and ultimate death. Winter’s snow covers the world with a white and aging head. In every language, winter symbolizes old age. every language, that is, except one. In hebrew, the word for “winter,” choref, can also connote the hidden burgeoning of youth into maturity. As it says in the book of Iyov (29:4): “as it was in the days of my winter.” “Winter” here means dormant vigor. how is it that winter can symbolize the bursting forth of life? how can we understand a worldview where winter is not necessarily connected to death - but to the flourishing of life?

On the fifteenth of the hebrew month of Shevat, a new year will begin. There will be little or no television coverage of this event. It will be the quietest new Year’s day in the world, and yet Tu BiShevat - the new Year for trees - is one of the most significant days in the calendar. But apart from its halachic ramifications, why should trees need a new Year? Are they going to make resolutions? What does it mean that the trees have a new Year? And why is it specifically on the fifteenth of Shevat?

let’s start with the last question. Tu BiShevat takes place in the middle of winter. everything outside seems frozen and lifeless. however, hidden from sight, something is happening deep inside the trees. under the frozen bark, at the very core, the sap is beginning to rise. everything looks the same as yesterday, everything seems unchanged - but, inexorably, new life is starting to burgeon. It may not be the end of winter, but it is the beginning of the end.

You can look at winter in two ways. You can look at it as The end. You can look at its deathly chill. Or you can look at it as a silent birthday. The same is true of life itself. You can look at the winter years of life as the end. Or you can see those same years as looking forward to a life just about to be born on another plane.

The Torah likens man to a tree: “for man is the tree of the field” (Devarim 20:19). Just like the tree contains an unseen vigor which rises in the depths of winter and death, so too man has an unseen vigor planted inside him - an eternal existence that springs to life when we leave this winter-world of suffering and pain, as we say in the blessing after reading the Torah, “eternal life You have planted within us.”

When we celebrate Tu BiShevat, we are not just celebrating the new Year for Trees. In a way, we are celebrating our own renaissance. We are reminding ourselves that this is just a winterworld. Winter brings us the shortest days of the year. night seems to dominate the day. Winter is a paradigm of this world. In this world, darkness seems to rule. It’s easy to think that this is a brief walk in darkness between two greater darknesses. But to the Jew, this world of darkness is no more than a prelude to a great light. The Jew sees this winter-world as the harbinger of spring, not the executioner of summer.

At the very beginning of Creation, the Torah repeats the following phrase many times: “And it was evening and it was morning…” evening precedes morning; night precedes day. Why does the day start with the evening? If you were creating the world, wouldn’t you think it more logical to start with the morning, with the light?

Right at the beginning of the Creation, there is a hint. A hint that this is an evening-world. A world of winter and darkness. And it is only after this evening-world that we will finally enter the morning-world to live on an eternal plane.

That’s the secret message of Tu BiShevat, the day when we celebrate new life rising in the tree. Tu BiShevat is a new Year that proclaims that “it was evening,” but soon it will be morning.

of the bleak views
of the knowing snow
of the price of ice and rain
of the World’s conspiring
out of control -
out of all of this I know
there is a hearth
in the heart of darkness.

Posted in: Jewish Holidays

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