Tu Be-Shvat, as we know, is the “birthday of the trees”. But we may ask: what is the significance of Tu Be-Shvat for man? For many shlichim in diaspora communities, Tu Be-Shvat is a problematic festival. It seems – by its very definition – to be a festival bound up with Eretz Yisrael and involving planting saplings in the land, hiking in the land, etc. How can Tu Be-Shvat be “translated” into the language of the diaspora? The question that arises each year is the same: what spiritual significance does Tu Be-Shvat have, that may be commemorated and celebrated even outside of Eretz Yisrael?
One direction in answering this question may be derived from Rav Kook’s commentary on the Siddur, “Olat Ra’ayah”. Commenting on the haftarah read on Sukkot, Rav Kook teaches that there is a parallel between the periodicity of the year and the periodicity of each day. Just as the day is divided into hours of light and hours of darkness, so too is the year. And just as the day has a starting point, a climax and an ending, so does the year. And just as certain hours of the day may be singled out for attention, likewise certain periods of the year may also be distinguished.
What is important about this parallel is the noting of some point in the year that parallels some point in the day, and here Rav Kook points to Sukkot as paralleling the hour of sunset. We shall not address here the significance of this parallel concerning Sukkot, but shall rather concentrate on Tu Be-Shvat. Continuing the same idea, we see that if Sukkot corresponds to sunset, then Pesach must correspond to dawn (half a year after Sukkot, paralleling the period of night). Where is Tu Be-Shvat in this parallel scheme? We may suggest that Tu Be-Shvat (which falls two months before Pesach) is precisely the moment of “netz ha-hama”, the beginning of sunrise – the dawning of the new day. The blossoming of the almond tree, with its tidings of awakening of the trees and all of nature from their slumber to a new year of bounty, has not only a natural dimension but also a spiritual one. Nature turns to man, immersed in the depths of winter (at least in Israeland the rest of the northern hemisphere) and calls him to follow this awakening to the new year. This call is embodied in Tu Be-Shvat. If there was no marking of the new year of the trees, we might have paid no attention to this renewal. Tu Be-Shvat is the Rosh HaShanah that falls in the middle of the year, and it calls out to every person – in Israel and elsewhere – to being preparing, awakening, renewing himself. Yes, we are in the middle of the year, but we dare not allow ourselves to sink into routine. Tu Be-Shvat offers us a sort of “freshening-up station”, allowing us to stop our regular hum-drum, to look around at nature, and to follow its example: to awaken, rejuvenate ourselves and proceed with renewed strength in the paths of nature and the paths of the spirit.
A happy Tu Be-Shvat to all of Am Yisrael!