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  • Trees as models for spiritual growth

    Posted on January 25th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment


    What is the difference between trees and vegetation more broadly that they have separate and distinct new years on the Jewish calendar?

    In the first mishna of masekhet Rosh Hashana, we are told that new year of vegetation falls on the same date as that from which we count years, the shmita and the yovel –the 1st of Tishrei. The new year of the trees, which is under debate in this mishna, eventually settled its date as the 15th of Shvat. This calendar is primarily administrative, based on the ebb and flow of the political-agrarian systems of ancient Jewish life in the land of Israel. So perhaps the distinction between trees and other plants was based in growing cycles. After all, anyone who has been in Israel during Shvat has been witness to the beauty of the blooming shkediyot, the almond trees which are the first deciduous tree to return to life after the darkness of winter.

    As the next mishna moves our discussion of the calendar from worldly to heavenly concerns, Tu B’shvat looses its place of importance.

    בארבעה פרקים העולם נידון:

    בפסח, על התבואה.

    בעצרת, על פירות האילן.

    בראש השנה, כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון, שנאמר

    “היוצר יחד, ליבם; המבין, אל כל מעשיהם” (תהילים לג,טו).

    ובחג, נידונים על המים.

    Animals, people and even water are all subject to divine judgment. Trees, however, disappear. Only their fruit remains to pass before God. Again, what are we to make of this distinction? Moreover, in Midrash Bereshit Rabba  13:2, we learn that trees have a special relationship to people. The trees “converse with mortals; all trees—created, as trees were, to provide fellowship for mortals.”800px-Tree_rings

    Most plants do not die at the end of one season but instead wait quietly until either they are replanted for the next cycle or they reemerge from hibernation. This ability to start again completely reflects the vision of human judgment and rebirth associated with Rosh Hashana. It seems only natural then to associate plants with the 1st of Tishei.

    Trees by contrast, grow year to year. Each year adds another layer of protection and growth. Dry difficult years leave their mark in the form of thin rings of growth while years of rain and sun leave their mark in the form of larger more robust rings. Year to year, the fruit of a given tree can flourish or fall short but the core of the tree remains and continues to grow.

    Spiritual rebirth, like that of plants, is possible and even desirable. It is wonderful to believe that we can be replanted each year and regain our full potential. But it is also important to honor who we are and where we have been on our personal journeys. Like trees our experiences build one on the other, adding layers of meaning and strength. The difficult times add to our core just as the good times do.

    If trees are to be our companions, then their place in the year can provide us a model of loving kindness and continued growth. As Jews, there is a time to be harsh and introspective, to focus on our need for change. But on Tu B’shvat we can celebrate our growth, the rings that we have added to our lives in the last year. We can do so with love, with prayer, and praise –even in lean times. There is a time to judge the fruits of our labors, but we need to remember that the trees themselves have no day of judgment. People, like trees, have a holy core, one that does not die out year to year but rather builds on itself in an organic fashion.

    Our tradition distinguishes between plants and trees. Their different natural cycles and offer us different models for self understanding and growth. Just as we are encouraged to feel the burden of our actions and celebrate the power of rebirth, we must also embrace the core of who we are and rejoice without judgment.


    One response to “Trees as models for spiritual growth”

    1. Just as we are encouraged to feel the burden of our actions and celebrate the power of rebirth

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