Tu Bishvat is an opportunity for us to cultivate our growth and development. We can offer gratitude to the natural world around us for giving structure to our chaotic lives.
By Kelly Whitehead
Since the start of the pandemic, I have often felt a sense of uncertainty about time. I felt unsure of how the days, months, and now years progressed when the world somehow remained stagnant. In times of stress and unease, I find comfort in my Jewish tradition and its ability to make sense of the unceasing flow.
The sanctification of time is a major theme in Judaism. From daily prayers, to ending the week with Shabbat, to coming-of-age rituals, to the seven year shmita cycle, Judaism helps provide meaning to our ordinarily mundane schedules.
Every separation of time in Judaism can be a chance to reflect, resolve, and restore our promises to our friends, families, and loved ones.
A new year is an opportunity to neatly box the past away and invest in the potential possibilities to come. In addition to the Gregorian new year and Rosh Hashanah, Jews around the world celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year for the Trees. According to the Rabbis in the Mishnah, Tu Bishvat is celebrated when the earliest blooming trees in the land of Israel begin to grow. After a dark winter, the days are finally getting longer, and Jews can begin to celebrate the forthcoming light and growth.
Tu Bishvat, while directed towards trees, is an opportunity for us to cultivate our growth and development. flourishing. We can offer gratitude to the natural world around us for giving structure to our chaotic lives.
Many Jews follow the popular kabbalistic tradition of holding a Tu Bishvat seder, first mentioned in the 18th century book Pri Etz Hadar: “it is a good custom for the faithful to eat many fruits on this day and to celebrate them with words of praise.” It is traditional to eat dried and fresh fruits of the seven species of the ancient Land of Israel, which the Torah lists as wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.
Tu Bishvat also provides us with a metaphor for patience and self-cultivation in the face of our struggles – and a way to revel in our successes. In its original meaning, Tu Bishvat provides structure to agricultural life. According to the Torah, you cannot eat the fruit of a tree during its first three years (Leviticus 19:23). In the fourth year, the fruit must be set aside as an offering to the Temple. Finally, in the fifth year, on Tu Bishvat, you can enjoy the fruit. Tu Bishvat is the new year for all the trees so that we don’t have to keep day-by-day track of when each individual tree was planted to see if you can eat the fruit – all the trees “get older” on the same day. Medieval commentator Rashi explains that waiting for the fruit to mature proves loyalty to God and allows for a more bountiful harvest. After five years of waiting and working the land, Tu Bishvat is the day to celebrate hard labors.
So, how is your growth? What are you harvesting? On Tu Bishvat, we can reflect on the progress we ourselves are making. We can hope that soon enough, we too will benefit from our efforts. Even if we do not have literal fruit trees to harvest, we can use the sanctified time to celebrate and check in on our prior commitments to making our world better.
We can also use Tu Bishvat as a reminder to start sowing the seeds of change in our own lives. Just as small seeds turn into big trees, small efforts and ideas of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and Tikkun Middot (character building), can have large impacts on the world around us and ourselves. The more energy we put into sowing the seeds, the more we will benefit by the fruits of our labors: a more perfect world for the next generation. To quote Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, whose birthday observance this year coincides with Tu Bishvat, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Tu Bishvat reminds us that the world is going to get green again. Even if times feel dark now, our Jewish tradition teaches us that the light of spring will be here before we know it.
Kelly Whitehead (she/they) is a 3rd year rabbinical student and Jewish Nonprofit Management MA student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Kelly participated in the Reform Movement’s Jew V’Nation Jew of Color Fellowship, where they learned to create andfacilitate Anti-Racial Bias training for Jewish Professionals. They serve on the board of T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and was selected as one of The Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36 for 2021.
Keshet shared five reflections from queer Black Jews to honor the confluence of Tu Bishvat and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2022. Click here to view the whole collection!