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Parshas Beshalach - Shira (5769)

TU B'SHVAT AND THE "UPSIDE-DOWN" TREE

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This coming Monday, February 9th, we celebrate the beginning of another New Year in the Jewish calendar ... only this one is for trees!

That's right ... on Monday we will celebrate the Jewish holiday of Tu B'Shvat (pronounced too bish-vot) - the "New Year" for Fruit of the Trees. Now this doesn't mean that all the redwoods, magnolias and evergreen trees are going to get together for some eggnog and to make resolutions ("This year, I will not shed any more leaves on poor Mr. Goldstein's lawn"), and they certainly won't be blowing the shofar and dipping their apples in honey.

Rather, Tu B'Shvat - which means "the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat" - is the New Year for the purpose of calculating the age of trees for tithing. The Torah states that fruit from trees which were grown in the land of Israel may not be eaten during the first three years; the fourth year's fruit is for G-d, and after that, the fruit can be eaten. Each tree is considered to have aged one year as of Tu B'Shvat, no matter when in the year it was planted.

It is customary to plant trees and partake of the fruits of the land of Israel to mark the occasion. [To learn more about this very interesting Jewish holiday, click on: http://www.aish.com/tubshvat/tubshvatdefault/default.asp or http://www.torah.org/learning/yomtov/tubshvat/]

Now, if you aren't into the Israeli fruits and you don't have an extra tree lying around for you to plant ... don't worry, there is still a very meaningful and relevant lesson to be learned from the holiday of Tu B'Shvat which we can plant in our own hearts and which will hopefully bear fruit.

"A PERSON IS LIKE A TREE OF THE FIELD"

In Deuteronomy 20:19, where it discusses a Jew's responsibility to preserve the environment, the Torah compares a person to "a tree of the field". Mahara"l explains that just as trees must grow branches, flowers and fruit to fulfill their purpose, so man is put on earth to be spiritually productive and labor to produce moral, intellectual, and spiritual truth. This is why the Rabbis refer to the reward for good deeds as "fruit", for they are the true human growth.

In truth, the connection between man and a tree runs much deeper. Man, we are taught, is really an "upside-down" tree. As King David wrote in the Psalms (92:13-14):

"A righteous man will flourish like a date palm, like a cedar in the Lebanon he will grow tall. Planted in the House of the Lord, in the courtyards of our G-d they will flourish."

Trees are rooted in the earth and grow upward, whereas the tzaddik, or righteous person, is rooted in the heavens and grows downward. Man is "planted in the House of the Lord", meaning that the base of the human 'tree' is the soul, which is hewn from G-d's celestial glory. And the limbs of the body resemble the branches of a tree.

This analogy is true on many levels. On a Kabbalistic level, man is literally planted in the Heavens, as his neshamah, or Divine soul, comes directly from, and is intimately connected to G-d. As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes in his fascinating book Innerspace, the Kabbalists refer to five levels of the soul - nefesh (soul), ruach (spirit), neshamah (breath), chayah (living essence), and yechidah (unique essence) - all of which form a chain linking man to G-d. As the Torah says in Genesis 2:7, "And G-d blew into his nostrils a soul of life". And the Zohar comments on this verse that when G-d "exhales", He does so from His innermost being. Furthermore, even after having placed His breath into man's body, this breath is still not severed from Him. This indicates that man's soul is an extension of G-d's breath and is directly connected to Him.

v What this means to us is that the same way that a tree gets all its nourishment and its ability to produce and grow from its connection to the life-giving soil that its roots are embedded in, so, too, do we receive our spiritual nourishment and our tremendous and unlimited potential to produce and to achieve greatness, from our connection to G-d in Heaven. And much the same way that a tree that is cut off from its source cannot survive and thrive, we, too, cannot survive without that vital connection to G-d.

KEEPING OUR HEADS IN THE CLOUDS

On a different level, writes the Mahara"l, a person is like an "upside-down" tree in the sense that, just as a tree with longer and deeper roots that are sunk well into the ground is better equipped to survive a powerful storm, so, too, a person whose "head is in the clouds" - his seichel (intellect) is well rooted in the Heavens and he has a very good sense of himself and his connection to G-d - will be able to weather any storm, and no winds in the world will be able to "uproot" him.

Now all this sounds kind of vague and abstract, but I think that in today's day and age when things are changing so rapidly, and the world is so unstable (especially after 9/11 and the tsunami disaster), most people are looking for some sort of connection to G-d, or at least for an anchor to keep them from being uprooted by the "crazy winds of change" and all the new fads and ideologies that are constantly blowing us in all different directions.

Did you ever fly on an airplane when the plane started shaking violently? I don't know about you ... but the one or two times when that happened to me on my way to Israel, I looked to the old Rabbi sitting next to me for comfort and support. Not that this rabbi could somehow have stopped the plane from crashing - but there was this feeling that I had, just looking at how calm he was, that everything was going to be all right.

And so it is with life in general. Every so often things happen that shake up our cozy little world - and we have no way to deal with them. But a tzaddik whose head is firmly rooted in the Heavens, and who, through the study of Torah and the clear understanding of who he is and how he is intimately connected to a Loving G-d Who controls all that happens here on earth, is equipped with all the tools necessary to weather the storms that threaten to shake things up. He has bitachon (trust) in G-d's Divine Providence, and has tremendous moral, emotional and spiritual support in the knowledge that his soul is so intimately bound up with G-d.

As a matter of fact, the tzaddik who is aware of his "upside-down" tree-like connection to G-d, is not only better equipped to deal with crises and difficult tests, but even thrives and grows tremendously from each situation that he confronts - much the same way a deep-rooted tree that blows in a strong wind not only remains standing but also spreads its seeds in every which direction, producing even more trees in the future.

TWO WAYS TO VIEW AN APPLE

In yet another connection between man and trees, we find in Mishlei (Proverbs) 11:30 the following verse: "The fruit of a righteous one is a tree of life, and a wise man acquires souls". In this verse, King Solomon compares the fruit of a tzaddik to "a tree of life". What does this mean, and how does it connect to the end of the verse which says that "a wise man acquires souls".

I once heard a beautiful interpretation of this verse from Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz ZT"L, the Rosh Yeshiva and Dean of Yeshiva Chafetz Chaim in Queens, New York:

There are two ways to view an apple. Most people see it as just that - an apple. They see it how it appears to them externally, on the outside. But someone with vision and a deeper understanding of the workings of the world views that apple as much more than just an apple. He goes beyond the external outer shell of the apple and he sees the seed inside it, which, when properly grown and cultivated, can grow into a whole new tree of its own.

And the same applies with human beings, explains Rabbi Leibowitz, who can also be viewed in two ways. Most people view others around them as they perceive them externally. And sometimes, when what appears on the outside is not too nice or appealing, we reject the person and look down at him, and sometimes we even give up hope of this person ever "blossoming" and making something of himself in life.

A tzaddik, on the other hand,who knows the secret of the "upside-down" tree that is the human soul, sees beyond the rough exterior of this person's outside appearance to realize the seed which lies deep within him - his great and unlimited Divine neshamah - and which has the potential to grow and to blossom into a brand new tree! And when this man of vision sees that latent potential, he then has the ability to "acquire souls" and to bring out the best that this beautiful neshamah has to offer.

In life, we all encounter fellow human beings with "rough exteriors" - whether they be difficult children, tough bosses or co-workers, or just an annoying fellow congregant sitting next to us at the synagogue - and we would do well to realize this most important lesson from Mishlei. We must be like the tzaddik who sees beyond the apple's exterior to recognize the beautiful seed inside. We must do all we can to look at the beautiful and G-dly neshamah inside each and every person. And if we can cultivate that neshamah/seed properly and with much love and patience, it can and will grow into a beautiful tree in its own right.

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