CHIEF RABBI, HACHAM SHAUL KASSIN 5681 – 5779 / 1921-2018

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When we were young, we would sing, “Tu B’Shvat higiah hag ha’ilanot” on Tu B’Shvat. This song portrays the holiday of Tu B’Shvat as the Jewish version of Arbor Day - the holiday of the trees.

But what is the inner meaning of Tu B’Shvat? Is it merely a day to enjoy tasty fruit platters? The spiritual message of our other holidays is clear. We have a guide how to apply what happened so many years ago to our personal growth today. For example, Pesah is defined as “zman herutenu” (season of our freedom). We became free from Egyptian bondage, so now we need to use this special time to liberate ourselves from our addictions and bad habits. Sukkot is “zman simhatenu” (season of our joy). That’s when we need to work on staying happy in all circumstances. Shabuot of course is the holiday in which we reaccept the Torah this year and deepen our connection to its study. But on Tu B’Shvat, there are few sources as to what is the spiritual service of the day.

In fact, Tu B’Shvat does not figure prominently in the classic sources. It’s commonly known as the birthday of the trees, but its original context stems from the technical halachot of agriculture, as a way of marking dates for the different misvot hatluyot ba’ares. It would seem that it’s only relative to farmers. Nevertheless, it is recorded as a minor holiday on which one may not fast, and tahanunim are not recited. Thus, it certainly has deeper content.

The Ben Ish Hai

In fact, the Ben Ish Hai wrote Pri Es Haddar, an entire booklet dedicated to the kabbalistic tikkun of Tu B’Shvat that rectifies the spiritual worlds. He prescribes making a Tu B’Shvat seder where one eats thirty types of fruits. He classifies all the fruits into three categories. Some fruits, like a fig, have no pit or shell; the entire fruit is edible. This type corresponds to the supernal word of Beriya. There are some fruits in which the edible part is on the outside and the pit is on the inside. These fruits correspond to the lower world of Yesirah. The lowest level of fruit, corresponding to the world of Assiyah, are fruits in which the edible part is inside, surrounded by a tough inedible outer shell. In the Ben Ish Hai’s tikkun, the eating of each fruit is accompanied by reading a page of Zohar connected to that fruit. According to the kabbalists, this tikkun accomplishes hamtakat hadinim - sweetening of harsh judgments.

By the way, he also brings there a beautiful prayer to recite on Tu B’Shvat to get a nice etrog on Sukkot of the following year. This is worthwhile, since meriting a beautiful etrog is not just a function of paying a lot of money.

While we may not be on the level to delve to the depths of the kabbalistic tikkun, we can try to understand the teachings of the kabbalists about Tu B’Shvat as they pertain to our life.

Gd Reveals Himself in Nature

We must first acknowledge that there is a natural order to the world. This cannot be denied. There is a set system to the universe, which allows us to predict sunrise and sunset, weather patterns, and the speed of light. Nonbelievers do their best to avoid attributing nature to Gd. They may refer to this natural order as Mother Nature. Obviously, Mother Nature is as real as Mother Goose. When the weather man says, “Tomorrow, Mother Nature is going to wallop us with a storm,” he is really referring to Gd. We know that nature does not stand by itself. It is Gd hiding behind the veil of nature. That’s why the Hebrew word for world is “olam,” which is connected to the word “ne’elam”- meaning concealed. This teaches us that Gd is concealed in the world.

When the Sea of Reeds split, that was Gd revealing himself from behind the veil. When there are twelve paths carved out through the water, paved with marble and fruit trees, Gd’s presence and control is obvious. But when the sea reverts to its regular flow, Gd again becomes hidden behind the forces of nature. Our challenge and mission is to use our spiritual vision to continue to identify Him acting behind the scenes.  We see him hiding and declare, “Only You can create and control such a system. It’s all You. Without You, nature would revert to tohu vavohu (nothingness).

On one hand, the fact that the laws of nature are so perfectly predictable hides the Divine hand. Everything seems to run automatically.  Yet with eyes of emunah, the clockwork predictability testifies to the presence of its Creator and His greatness. The fact that we can predict today that there will be a solar eclipse on March30, 2071 is the biggest proof there is a Divine Manager. When things happen randomly-there is no control. Why does the 7:07 train come every morning at 7:07? Because there are a whole slew of managers working at the Transit Authority to keep things running on time. If there would not be a controlling hand, it would come one day at 4:00pm, one day at 4:00am, and the next day it wouldn’t come at all. So, we can actually discover Gd in nature. That is why the numerical value of the word hateva (nature) and Gd’s name “Elokim” are the same - 86.

Uncovering this Divine Revelation

Tu B’Shvat is the day to uncover the divine revelation in the trees, in the fruit, and in nature in general. Let me bring some examples.

This is the winter season. Science tells us that when things freeze, they contract, whereas heat makes matter expand. As liquids contract, they condense and become heavier. This is basic science. But what most people don’t know is that there is one exception to the rule which has extraordinary benefits. The exception is water. As water gets colder, it condenses until it reaches 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Then it stops and begins a reverse process. As it continues to get colder and drops below the freezing point, it begins to expand. What’s so great about this? If not for this unusual switch, all the marine life in the cold climates would perish after a single winter. Because of this phenomenon, when water becomes ice at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it is lighter than the liquid water and it floats. So, the ice covers only the surface of the ocean leaving the fish alive and free to swim underneath. If water would continue to condense as ice, it would be heavier than the water and would sink to the bottom, one layer at a time, until all the fish would die in sheets of ice. Scientists would call this good luck or Mother Nature shining her grace upon us.  They cannot admit that it was Gd who created the world. They call this a lucky strike; we call it Gd.

You know, I wish they would have taught us science like this in yeshiva. If so, we would have learned something with eternal value.

An Oxygen Tree

Here’s another example. It’s no secret that we need oxygen to breathe. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. If all animals and humans are constantly exhaling carbon dioxide, why doesn’t the air become filled with this poisonous gas? The miraculous fact that we have plants and trees on earth leads to photosynthesis. Photosynthesis means that trees also breathe. Yet, amazingly, trees breathe the opposite of humans; they inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen.

Each spring, we make a blessing on the trees: “Asher lo hiser balolamo klum, uvara bo briyot tovot v’ilanot tovot lhanot bahen bneh adam,” blessing Gd for not leaving anything out of creation and creating good trees to benefit man. What pleasure do the trees give us? I always thought the blessing was referring to eating their fruit. But if so, why do we make the beracha before the tree produces the fruit? Moreover, what about somebody who doesn’t like fruit? The fruit trees give him no benefit. So why does he say the beracha? We’ll ask him a simple question: “You may not like fruit, but do you like to breathe?” I assume the answer will be yes! Next time you see a tree, thank Gd for the tree. It’s giving you the air you breathe. It’s not just an apple tree; it’s an oxygen tree.

The critical balance between the humans and the trees, between oxygen and carbon dioxide, has somehow always been maintained throughout history. Who keeps the balance? Only Gd. Again, the scientists call this a lucky fluke of nature, but this is our challenge on Tu B’Shvat: Take something that looks regular and reveal the Gdliness.

Gd’s Craftsmanship

Once Rav Yeruham, the mashgiach of the famed Mir Yeshiva was in the middle of teaching five hundred boys. He suddenly asked one of the boys to go into his office and bring him a book called Ma’aseh Elokenu, which literally means the workmanship of Gd. The boy goes into the office but doesn’t see any books on the desk. Sheepishly, he returns and tells the rabbi that the book is not there. The rabbi insists and tells him to look again, as it is the only thing on the desk. The boy goes back and notices an orange on the desk. He takes it and goes back to the rabbi, apologizing, “Forgive me; I’m not trying to make fun, but the only thing on the desk was this orange.” The rabbi says, “Yes! Wonderful. That’s what I wanted. This is the book Ma’aseh Elokenu! But it’s an orange?!! You see an orange. I see the craftsmanship of Gd.”

He then proceeded to give an entire shiur on the genius of an orange. He showed them the color of the peel and demonstrated that this is proof against the theory of evolution. The evolutionists hold that our world evolved randomly from some organic plasma. Of course, Gd forbid, don’t ask a Gdless evolutionist where that original material came from. They get hot under the collar when you ask that. They know that once you go there, you get to Gd. So, they always begin their argument assuming there was this original material. Of course, I think it’s a legitimate question. If I see a container of milk on the counter, it’s a fair question to ask how it got here. But for them, it’s taboo. They say, “It’s just there. Let’s start from that…”

Even if we entertain their folly that the orange trees just evolved by themselves, let’s say in Florida, and humans were busy evolving, independently, in Brooklyn, there’s a major problem with their story. How did the orange tree know that if it becomes that shade of orange, that the human eye would be able to detect it? How did it know that such a taste would be edible and sweet to human taste buds? How did it just happen that the citrus scent could be smelled by a human nose? The same is true about all fruit. If there was no Guiding Hand from above, how did the banana know to change the color of its peel to indicate that it is ripe? Who told it that a human gets a stomachache when eating a banana that is still green? These are serious challenges to evolutionists. We, of course have no problem with this. We know that there is one overall Manager who synchronized creation to make all of its various components compatible with each other.

Rav Yeruham continued and cut open the orange and showed them. “Look, the liquid does not fall out!” It’s ingenious packaging. Could you invent something that holds six ounces of liquid juice that is only emitted when bitten into? And he continued to extol the Divine genius of an orange.

Look at the Apple

Furthermore, have you ever considered the stem of an apple? It looks like a simple stub ready to be discarded. But if you truly understood what it was, you would probably give it a kiss and keep it in your wallet as a kammea (amulet). The stem, of course, functions as an umbilical cord, connecting the fruit to the tree, just like an embryo. This is how the tree sustains the fruit till maturity. But there is something even more amazing. You probably heard the legend of Isaac Newton, who was sitting under an apple tree, when an apple fell off and hit him on the head, inspiring his discovery of gravity. In my opinion, he missed the real lesson. Gravity can be observed by anything that falls downward. Instead, he should have asked himself, “Hold it. Why did the apple fall off the tree at this moment?” Up till now, the stem held the apple tightly connected, bearing the brunt of wind and rain. How did the stem “know” to release the fruit at the perfect moment when the fruit becomes ripe? Once you see Gd in nature, you can never look at a stem the same way. The biotech industry only fantasizes about a digital sensor that can achieve this.

If we we’re already talking about an apple, think about the color and aroma which are divinely designed to already activate our salivary glands to help us digest. It’s getting us ready even before the first bite. Once you bite in, what do you see? A free coupon! Buy one get one free. It’s the seed. You don’t just get another apple; you get an entire tree of a hundred apples from each seed, for free. Look at the valuable bounty that Gd instilled in each piece of fruit.

Tu B’Shvat’s Take-Home Message

Thus, the take-away from Tu B’Shvat is to reveal the Gd in nature. Doing this, accomplishes the kabbalistic tikkun of hamtakat hadinim - sweetening the harsh judgments and decrees. When people separate nature for Gd, on the contrary, they arouse harsh judgments. You should run the other way when you hear people saying the world and life just happened by chance. We don’t just say, “What a beautiful world”; we pay attention to Hashem’s signature signed all over it.

The best way to accomplish this is reciting berachot. Each time we say a beracha on food or nature, we are revealing Hashem’s hidden name behind the veil of nature. Tu B’Shvat is the perfect time to strengthen our commitment to saying berachot.

If we do this, then we will merit not only tasting the sweetness of the fruit, but also sweetening any harsh judgments, and feeling the sweetness of being close to Gd in our daily lives.