The Song of the Trees: Shabbat Shira & Tu Bishvat

Shabbat, although repeated next week in the Ten Commandments, is already mentioned in this week’s reading. Contrary to life the way we know it, when we get rain from the heavens and bread from the ground, the miraculous journey the desert begins with the unthinkable: rain from the ground (some say, through a traveling well), and bread – from the sky. The people can go out and collect that sweet white stuff that is their food daily, but not on Shabbat. On Shabbat no manna will show up on the ground. Instead, they will get a double portion on Friday and Shabbat will be a day or rest. (Exodus 16:4-30).
When some do go out on the 7th day, unable to perceive how is this supposed to work out with us not working seven days a week, Moses is very angry with them, as if, they already suppose to know, and one wonders, why?
Maybe because from the Torah perspective, Shabbat is as old as the world. The first time we hear about it is as the 7th day of creation (Genesis 2:1-3), when G-d “rested”. Does G-d really need a break, or did He create a day for us?
As often is the case, the sages offer two conflicting ideas about this day. The first is described with this imagery: “In this world, a person picks figs on Shabbat, and the fig says nothing. But, in the world to come, the fig will scream and say – it’s Shabbat today!!”
The second quotes a verse from later in the Book of Exodus saying: “for it is holy to you” (31:14) and explains: “’to you’ namely, she (Shabbat) belongs to you and not you – to her” .
The first saying emphasizes Shabbat as an innate part of the world. Even a fruit of a tree knows of this day, and can advocate for its holiness. In the second, Shabbat is ours, and we get to do with it as we wish. If my way of “resting” is going to a soccer game, then so be it.
Which way is it? Yes.
There is something about Friday afternoon which I cannot explain, as if a soft blanket wraps the world and slows everything down. This is not about a specifically “Jewish” environment because the neighborhood I live in is as mixed as they come. It’s just a tiny, brief moment of greater peacefulness (yes, I wonder if it can be felt on a lonely island -). And yet, that something, if not captured, is quickly gone. That’s when the second saying comes in: Shabbat is ours. We get to decide. We get to act.
Nowadays there’s talk about the concept of “unplug” and making a “not to do” lists. Because the challenge of the Children of Israel in the desert is ours too. It is so hard to stop! There is always one more thing, one more dish to prepare, one more message to send, one more thing to write down, one more place to go to… but what if not. What if for 25 hours, everything can wait. What if I can get it into my mind that in spite of how highly I think of myself, and the importance of all I do, it is possible to make time for nothing, and allow me and the material world a break from each other? What would that look like?

This Monday is Tu Bishvat, literally “the 15th day of the month of the Hebrew month of Shvat (the construct “tu” being made of the Hebrew letters tet = 9 and vav = 6), which has been set aside as “the birthday of the trees”, or more correctly the “New Year’s” for the trees, already in the Mishna (so about 1800 years ago). Why would the trees need a birthday?? Because the Torah tells us how to treat the fruits of a tree that is 3, 4 or 5 years old, so counting the years of the trees was important and practical. But the day has also allowed an opportunity to honor and celebrate trees and nature. The Kabalists created a whole Tu Bishvat seder with different fruits parallel to the different worlds we experience (with a hard pit or core, with a hard shell and with neither), and in modern Israel, it became a day of planting and going out to celebrate nature.
Elsewhere in the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19) it says, “ki ha’adam etz hasade” – “for humans are like a tree in the field”. Actually, if I understand the original correctly, the context is exactly the opposite: the topic is war and we are commanded not to chop down fruit tree. The Torah asks an obvious question: are trees like people and who can run away when a war is waged on them?
But the Torah has no vowel or punctuation marks, so maybe it is a statement, and maybe because of the deep nature of the issue (wondering how far we can actually run away, from which war, what does that mean etc -), the sages understood that people are indeed like trees of the field. Just like trees, in order to grow, we need a home and base (ground), nourishment (water), warmth and support (sun), and challenges to get stronger (wind). A tree is a reminder of the connection between heaven and earth, planted in the ground and reaching to the heavens. The metaphor is likewise handy in relationship with other people, especially as educators, parents, teachers. Thinking of people as trees means paying attention to who we are in our core; It means understanding that our differences and uniqueness is essential to who we are; it means thinking which branches help us and which ones block us and our sunlight; it means thinking of stuff that bore holes in us, and stuff that heals.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful essays I’ve ever read about trees is by Nobel Prize winner, Herman Hesse. Here is just a piece of it: “When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy. Life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let G-d speak within you and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads you away from home. But every step and every day lead you back again. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or nowhere at all”….
Shabbat Shalom.

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