This Tu Bishvat, What Will You Plant?
Tu Bishvat — the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat — is a perfect holiday for educators!
It is a one-day festival on the Jewish calendar that can become the focus of an entire unit in the classroom. Tu Bishvat lends itself readily to teaching about how and why we celebrate birthdays, how trees grow and develop, types and regions of vegetation, and the agricultural cycle. Students can also learn that what might at first appear to be waste – like fruit peels – can be made into something great, perhaps no less magnificent than jam.
When I was teaching in the classroom, I had the opportunity to relate the central Tu Bishvat theme of environmental responsibility to other acts of social justice, and the pleasure of seeing Bialik students make a difference in the community through their countless acts of kindness. Today, working more broadly on the curriculum, Tu Bishvat has gained yet another exciting meaning for me: it is the holiday of growth, renewal and continuity.
Allow me to draw your attention to Deuteronomy 20:19:
“כִּֽי־תָצ֣וּר אֶל־עִיר֩ יָמִ֨ים רַבִּ֜ים לְֽהִלָּחֵ֧ם עָלֶ֣יהָ לְתָפְשָׂ֗הּ לֹֽא־תַשְׁחִ֤ית אֶת־עֵצָהּ֙ לִנְדֹּ֤חַ עָלָיו֙ גַּרְזֶ֔ן כִּ֚י מִמֶּ֣נּוּ תֹאכֵ֔ל וְאֹת֖וֹ לֹ֣א תִכְרֹ֑ת כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לָבֹ֥א מִפָּנֶ֖יךָ בַּמָּצֽוֹר”
“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?”
In the Biblical context, this verse teaches that in times of war, besiegers have an obligation to protect trees since they can’t retreat from a battlefield and are therefore vulnerable. Over time, this verse has come to gain an alternative and perhaps a deeper meaning: ki ha’adam etz hasadeh, in which it is the human who is likened to the tree of the field.
Is it possible that trees possess qualities that might teach us a thing or two about humanity?
It seems so.
A person can be likened to a seed in their first few years of life: just as the seed begins to sprout and grow roots, so do young children. At Bialik, with each passing year, our students become more resilient and more connected to their roots and their surroundings. This Tu Bishvat, I am proud to be working to nurture and further grow our school’s commitment to placing the child at the centre of the learning experience.
Just as we’ve seen the phrase ki ha’adam etz hasadeh gain a new meaning over the ages, so has Tu Bishvat changed. What started out as a date to mark the age of one’s crops so that you could fulfil agricultural Mitzvot, later became a date primarily observed by liturgical changes to the daily prayers following the destruction of both Temples. In late medieval times, Kabbalists renewed this holiday by adding rituals such as the Tu Bishvat seder, and this was followed by cultural-spiritual Zionists living in Israel in the early 1920s turning it into a celebration of our revived connection to the Land of Israel. It is apparent that just as the Jewish people had to adapt throughout history, so did our holidays.
And what of Tu Bishvat today?
Here we are, with snow piling quicker than it melts and it seems bizarre to be celebrating the renewal of nature when growth seems to have come to a halt. It is precisely this time, however, that gives nature the strength it needs for the spring. Similarly, we are at times faced with challenges that result in decline, we must use these hardships as an opportunity to rest, reflect and then rebuild. This Tu Bishvat, with the global pandemic keeping us confined, I am inspired by how far we have come since last March, and look forward to further reflection, innovation and opportunities for renewal.
While renewal is a critical component of growth, there is something to be said about authenticity and continuity. It is interesting to note that one central constant throughout Jewish history has been the value we place in education. Since the revelation at Mount Sinai, the transmission of information from one generation to the next has been intrinsic to our collective Jewish experience.
The concept of continuity and transmission is further supported by a famous Talmudic story, told conveniently around Tu Bishvat, about a man who decides to plant a carob tree. While the man is hard at work, around comes another man and asks, “Why are you planting this tree, knowing very well that it would not bear fruit until much after your passing?” The man responds, “It is not for me that I am planting but for the generation to come’.
This Tu Bishvat, as we confront our presently challenging reality, let us remember why we are here and the importance of our interconnectedness. Let’s persist in being innovative so that we can proudly advance the educational excellence and accessibility that is our hallmark. Let’s continue to stay connected— even if at times we are physically apart — for the sake of the growth of our next generation.